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Leveling the Field

Mutton-Busting, Crawford County Fairgrounds, Girard, Kansas
Raymond L. Brecheisen, Morning Sun, 1987

If you come across a woman on the cover of Sports Illustrated, chances are she is wearing a swimsuit, because in the testosterone-laden sports media, many female athletes have a difficult time getting respect.

Tanith Belbin, who skated away with a silver medal at the 2006 Torino Olympics, recently garnered Hottest Female Athlete of the Year honors on ESPN's Website. Belbin, it seems, beat out Indy car driver Danica Patrick, former Wimbledon champ Maria Sharapova, and others for not being "afraid to wear outfits that show a little skin."

But "Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like?," on view at the Lowe Art Museum, snaps the jock off those macho knuckleheads, and it does so with aplomb. The show features 182 photographs that document the role sports have played in the lives of women and girls during the past century, and their milestone accomplishments since the 1972 enactment of Title IX, which mandated equality for women and girls in our schools.

The exhibit was cocurated by reporter Jane Gottesman and photographer Geoffrey Biddle and kicked off at the Smithsonian in 2002 to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the milestone law. The ambitious show has since traveled across the nation as part of a five-year tour. In a book sharing the show's title and written by Gottesman, the reporter cites her experiences as a sports staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle during the early Nineties, a time when she recalls "women's sports is second rate" was the prevailing attitude in the paper's sports department.

Back then, Gottesman was the only female on a staff comprising almost twenty. She began a tally of the newspaper's sports stories or photos run about female athletes, and drew a goose egg on most days. On the rare occasion when the paper did report women's accomplishments, the article would appear in the back of the section, next to ads for escort services. Discouraged, she investigated the number of women who had graced the cover of America's premier sports magazine — Sports Illustrated — between February 1993 and 1994. Other than swimsuit models, Gottesman found that the only women featured on the cover during that period were female athletes at their most vulnerable. Monica Seles made an appearance after being stabbed, Nancy Kerrigan after her knee was clubbed, and Mary Pierce because her father often went ballistic during her matches. During February 1994, the Tonya Harding scandal monopolized the media's attention for weeks.

Soon after, Gottesman wrote an essay titled "Cover-Girl Athletes," which addressed the idea that women athletes were largely invisible in the sports media until they made news as victims or vixens. The response to her piece blossomed into "Game Face." For nearly ten years Gottesman searched for images by fine-art photographers and photojournalists that span from time and place to age and race, and depict females participating in every imaginable sport. From tomboys to champions, "Game Face" portrays from expansive perspectives the desire and complexity of women who love sports. It spiritedly reflects the many ways women play and compete, while underscoring how stereotypes have faded away and a new generation has embraced athletics in a way unimaginable a quarter-century ago.

The photographs range from a black-and-white shot of an oddly dressed woman pole-vaulting in 1906, to a color picture of an eleven-year-old girl wearing braces and beaming cheerfully as she poses with her 9mm Ruger P89 during target practice. Michael Probst's photo Hundred-Meter Final captures Gail Devers as she beats Jamaica's Merlene Ottey by a shoelace at the finish line to take the gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Devers was among the first generation of American women to gain acceptance in the sports world after Title IX.

Kellie Jolly Getting Ready for Championship Game, shot by Lynn Johnson in 1997, depicts the young hoops star getting her ankles taped by a trainer while a friend braids her hair. Jolly anchored three national championship teams at the University of Tennessee in the late Nineties. In Mom Is a Body Builder, snapped by Brad Graverson for the Daily Breeze in 1979 in Newburg, California, a bikini-clad woman flexes her biceps in front of a living-room mirror while her young daughter mimics her pose nearby.

A photo by Joyce Marshall that appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1993 shows a bespectacled Tammie Overstreet — the only woman ever to play on the Pittsburg (Texas) High School football team — holding her helmet in one hand and the other folded across her chest during the National Anthem. She played linebacker. Cheryl Haworth, who won a bronze medal in the 75-plus-kilo weight class in the inaugural women's weightlifting competition during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, shows her power in a photo by Mary Ellen Mark. Standing in the Georgia woods, the brawny athlete holds a tree trunk over her head, her jaw clenched in concentration.

Although many stars are represented in the show — including Marion Jones, Chris Evert, Althea Gibson, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Mary Lou Retton, and Martina Navratilova — some of the most striking images come from anonymous amateurs. A young black girl plays hopscotch in Harlem in the Fifties. Another girl, who might be fresh out of a Kansas kindergarten, mutton-busts at a country fair. The child holds on to a galloping sheep for dear life while a rodeo clown trails behind, ready to pick her up when she falls.

Women are depicted carrying trophy deer they have felled, holding up salmon they have hooked, surfing 25-foot waves, and pummeling one another in the boxing ring. Grannies shot-put, square-dance, and perform water ballet. Tennis greats and rivals Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova — who have played against each other 80 times, with Navratilova holding a 43-to-37 edge — are pictured arm-wrestling lightheartedly at an awards ceremony. Next to the photo is an image of Jim Thorpe and Babe Didrikson Zaharias at a celebrity golf tournament in 1950 after being chosen by the Associated Press Poll as the top male and female athletes of the first half of the century.

The exhibit features so many examples of the indomitable spirit of women that choosing a favorite is impossible. Lynn Johnson's stunning black-and-white photograph of Aimee Mullins leaves a lasting impression. Mullins, who competed in NCAA Division 1 track at Georgetown, set Paralympic records in 1996 in Atlanta in the 100-meter dash and long jump. The photo shows her being interviewed by a television news crew. The double amputee stands atop what appear to be custom-made shock absorbers on which she runs, as she smiles for the camera, her hands resting on her hips from exhaustion.

The direct results of Title IX became apparent during the 1996 Olympics, when American women's teams took the gold in basketball, softball, and soccer. No one who watched the U.S. team win the Women's World Cup in 1999 will ever forget the image, on exhibit here, of Brandi Chastain as she slid to her knees, peeled off her jersey, and pumped her fists in euphoria over the victory.

In an awe-inspiring picture that viewers will remember long after they leave the exhibit, Iditarod winner Susan Butcher stands on her dogsled in a frozen no-man's-land. The Iditarod — a 1100-mile dogsled competition from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska — is a race few men dare undertake. She has won it four times.

The photo is as an apt metaphor for just how much women have achieved in sports during the past 30 years.


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