Describing the body in sport

“Athletes them­selves, can and ought to be appreciated as objects of intellectual and even ethical contemplation. This is, after all, the Hellenic heritage of modern sport and the genetic destiny it shares with art, as a legitimate and beautiful off­spring of play.” — Reid, 2012

Historically, sport was played and watched predominately by men. Over the last hundred or so years, female participation and attendance in sport has substantially grown but most often this was confined to ‘acceptably feminine’ sports that were judged, individual and non-combative.

During 2017, the interest, viewership and commentary of Australian professional women’s sport continued to grow and was given additional impetus by the successes of the Matildas, Southern Stars, Diamonds, Women’s 7s, the high profile launch of professional women’s AFL teams, Big Bash League, and the planned (2018) launch of a women’s NRL competition. Given this great advancement in representation within sport we may now also require a new set of interpreting skills.

How we talk about sport — or how sport has traditionally been commented upon or described still retains much of its exclusively male past. Consequently, there have been multiple studies and papers that have described how sexism and problematic masculinity has been constructed and maintained in sport and in its commentary.

The male versions of rugby and AFL have a clear homoerotic content and their popularity is partly based on the fact than many men (unconsciously or unadmittedly) like to watch big strong men in skimpy outfits physically overpowering other big strong men (see also Wrestling, MMA and Boxing) — noting that this is not in any way a new concept. In Ancient Greece where sport was conducted by naked men, it was considered in theory to be a conjunction of Arete, Thanatos and Eros (virtue, death and sex) and in practice merely as foreplay.

Where sport in the modern world has been based on men watching male-on-male bodily contact it has been deemed necessary never to draw to attention the possible erotic connections of the physical touching taking place. In commentary, to emphasise the hetero-normative masculinity all descriptions of contact have been related only to celebrations of force, power and strength combined with military and combat analogies.

The absolute resistance shown to any hint of sexuality or same sex attraction in discourse of invasion sports (and its influence on sporting culture) is surely one of the reasons that so few currently playing professional male athletes have been able to come out.

Similarly the justification used for the audience watching other men play has been for its excitement and actual and potential for violence rather than for any of its more aesthetic qualities.

Violence and brain injury is the selling point in this example of men’s RLWC promotion

It is clear that for a good portion of the audience that injury and blood are both anticipated and enjoyed. The Australian intense dislike of feigning injury (primarily in football), it could be considered, is not due to a sense of fair play, but because it is a denial and mimicry of an audience’s actual desire. But this promotion of violence over skill may end up costing the sports industry dearly (as it has the NFL) through the almost inevitable finding of liability for compensation for athlete’s concussion injuries.

There are semantic, ontological and moral structures that constitute gender, sex and our perceptions of bodies. Notwithstanding this in theory, there is clearly physical beauty in individual athletes, just as there is also beauty in athletic bodies in action — and this should hopefully not be too problematic to describe.

Commentators have learnt over the years (in particular from Olympic coverage) acceptable ways to talk about women’s sport that describes women in play that are not overtly reductive or offensive. They have done this by attempting to discuss women’s sport in generally the same way as men’s sport and by omitting (mostly) reference to player’s bodies. But this hasn’t seemingly led to a better listening or viewing experience “because this “bland” language normalizes a hierarchy between men’s and women’s sports while simultaneously avoiding charges of overt sexism” (Musto, 2017). By seeking to ignore athlete’s aesthetics we are in danger of making discussion of athletes both bland and taboo.

“rather than praising athletic beauty, many intellectual discourses on sports today belittle and sometimes flatly denounce what famous athletes are all about.” — Gumbrecht, 2006:24

It is a trope of all the arts, that the female figure is beautiful. Its representation is dominant throughout western art and culture, so much that the choreographer George Balanchine could say “ballet is woman”. In sport however this was historically not the case. Pierre de Coubertin founder of the modern Olympics believed that women should not engage in competitive sport as they were “unaesthetic” (Abrams, 2003). His view was maintained and endorsed by leaders such as Avery Brundage, so that full sporting equality was not established in the Olympics until 2012.

Society in every sphere already recognises and privileges the beautiful. This is especially the case in the entertainment industry which is where most professional sport resides. Thus ‘conventionally attractive’ athletes earn greater public and media interest and therefore greater sponsorship and commercial revenue than some of their more skilled or successful sporting competitors. But, on the other hand, individual athletes who have traded solely on their looks rather than their skills have not tended to have a long commercial or sporting life.

The magazines Sports Illustrated and the defunct Black+White have sought to photograph prominent athletes aesthetically nude, how beneficial or successful this has been (for the athlete and sport) is in question. The Matilda’s 2000 nude calendar was undertaken due to a dire need to raise money and for publicity purposes. While it was successful in those aims in the short term, it has since been widely regretted. It is in such works where we can see the very real difference between the aesthetic beauty of an athlete engaged in peak performance and the staged and glamourised athletic body of the photoset.

The wider sport community is sensibly very wary of sexualising women’s sport as it is considered to undermine sport participation and because it does not make good commercial sense. The failure of the introduction of the Legends Football League (a rebranded version of the US Lingerie Football League) into Australia in 2013/2014 showed that sexualising sport does not attract enough of an audience of men and attracts practically no women. Similarly, the Australian magazine Inside Sport has survived the overall downturn in magazine sales by replacing female model photoshoots with women’s sport stories.

There is a long standing problem in finding ways to communicate and celebrate the athletic body without it being seen as a sexualised statement on individual gender, gender attraction, sexuality or attractiveness — which also negated the athletes sporting achievements.

The sports historian Allen Guttmann (1991, 1996) stated that there is an inherent erotic element in both performing and watching sport. That people find other people attractive is a normal human impulse found among all genders. But this becomes a problem when dominant figures (especially men in professional capacities) eroticise and objectify women athletes and thus trivialise their sporting performances.

There is strong, if anecdotal, evidence that women’s sport is proportionately more popular within the lesbian community. Their reportage and fan commentary manages to be absent of sexualisation. Therefore, it should be possible for heterosexual men to be professional when describing women just as heterosexual women journalists are when commenting on men’s sport.

“The most arresting aesthetic feature of sport is the grace of the human form. Economy and efficiency of effort is accomplished in movement which is continuous and fluid: sport provides us distinct balletic values.”- Kupfer, 1975

There are a number of sports (primarily judged sports) which have a strongly artistic aspect and are watched and partially scored on aesthetic terms (defined as execution, style and artistry). These include diving, gymnastics, figure skating, synchro, calisthenics, snowboard, skateboard and dancesport. Within these sports it is accepted and justified to speak of beauty — both of the athlete and of the performance — and of men and women.

Football is one invasion sport where it has been possible to talk of beauty. It is the foremost world sport and one that requires flowing skillful movement and is less focussed on physical contact. Popularised in Australia as the ‘Beautiful Game’ by Les Murray, the commentary on football has never been shy of using generous terms to more readily describe particular executions of skill — beautiful goal, lovely tackle, etc.

Too often men’s and now also women’s sports commentary speaks only of aggression, strength and endurance rather than intelligence, skill, grace or beauty. Sport is not actually a battle or a war and notwithstanding occasional attempts to “bring back the biff” in Australia, we are slowly moving away from violence as entertainment. It does no benefit to seek to have women’s sport discussed in the same way as traditional gladitorial macho men’s sport as the description of men’s sport is in itself already reductive.

Women spectators want to see athletes demonstrate individual skill, excellence, bravery and team collaboration, they generally (though not always) do not appear to have the same male urge to watch same-sex violence. To continue to be successful, women’s sport should therefore not seek to mimic all of the traditional male aspects of sport. Through better discourse women’s sport could and should continue to further develop its own culture and audience.

This tweet by the Jillaroos links to a video of a skillful try rather than an injury

This is not to say that we need to privilege what have been previously perceived as traditional ‘feminine’ traits — just as we don’t need to describe sport within historical ‘masculine’ standards.

There is a need for new ways of describing sport, in particular invasion sports, that are able to move beyond the very basic binary of domination/subjection. What should be sought is:

  • to celebrate the athletic body without necessarily critiquing an individual athlete’s looks or agency
  • to celebrate the athletic body without reducing them to merely a sexualised body
  • to celebrate the athletic body without supporting discriminatory, eugenicist or body fascist glorification
  • to celebrate all types of athlete’s bodies without being exclusionary of disabled, trans, gender diverse and intersex athletes.

The best sports commentary (of which there is much) involves interpretation, contextualisation, and analysis. It could also acknowledge beauty, aesthetics and embodiment. As with theatre and dance, good sports criticism should understand that bodies (as well as their performative actions) are there on view and are able to be commentated on. Athletes perfect their bodies and their movements within their disciplines (and are invariably proud to display them) and therefore may be lauded or critiqued upon that aim.

The narrow metre of discourse about sports may be partly due to the fact that the great mass of commentary on it is provided by retired players. Who, while generally vastly knowledgeable about the sport, are often not natural communicators (verbal or written) or best placed to see athletes or their sport in a wider cultural context and have often been raised in a historically profoundly misogynistic ‘locker room’ environment (see Channel 9’s Footy Show). This is less the case, for example, in cricket and baseball for which often the best commentary has come from amateurs or interested outsiders whose prose is expansive, literary and acknowledging of aesthetics.

The athlete’s body is the most fundamental part of all sport and as such should be celebrated. Seeking to further promote women’s sport and remove sexist commentary is absolutely vital, but this should not be done by removing the athlete’s body from discussion or by subsuming women’s events into tired masculine warrior tropes.

The hope is to have commentary that describes an athlete as at once something other than merely a woman or a man and symbolic of a range of aesthetic values (beauty, movement, kinesics, ethics, discipline, health) as well as a being capable of winning a contest.

The majority of people access professional sport through television or streaming — which is generally always mediated by commentary. Therefore what is said about it, and during it, is more conspicuous and relevant than for all other forms of entertainment. Sport is a great influencer and if it can be communicated without historic gender biases then maybe so can society at large.


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