Poor Tonya Harding. After the 1998 Winter Olympics, it's possible to imagine a different fate for her than TV interview rematches with her bte noire and tabloid twin Nancy Kerrigan. If only Harding had been born a few years later, she might have spent the past few weeks applying her talents to ice hockey, where whacking the competition with sticks is actually part of the game. Imagine Tonya strapped into shin guards, delivering a body check powered by those hard-charging thighs. Here's a gal who knows how to send her opponents to the locker room crying.
Once again, one of the big stories of the winter games is the bitches on ice-except this time the epithet is used in praise. As was the case in the summer of 1996, the Olympic women have outshone their male counterparts in team sports, providing more grit, amateur spirit and teamwork.
While the puffed-up male pros sank in the quarterfinals against the Czechs-for this the National Hockey League suspended play for two and a half weeks?-the women avenged the nation's honor and put on an emotionally charged show. This latest female sports coup was another dramatic blow for equal opportunity in the macho arena of sports.
True, there are limits to even sports-sanctioned aggression. As the North Americans moved toward their gold medal matchup, the Canadian coach complained bitterly that USA's Sandra Whyte hurt the feelings of Canada's Danielle Goyette by saying something nasty about her recently deceased father. The Americans denied it ever happened, and it's a good thing. We may be happy, even uplifted, to see women shove each other's face against Plexiglas barriers during a game. But saying something mean about another girl's dead dad is just not acceptable. Girls, even tough hockey-playing girls, are supposed to be nice.
Speaking of girls, at this writing the battle of America's ice princesses had yet to take place. Of course, history tells us figure-skating competitions can make for grudge matches as fierce as any hockey game, but the figure skaters do provide the comforting face of female Olympic competition: pretty girls showing off the grace of their lithe bodies. And Kwan, Lipinski and Bobek, their heads demurely bent over steaming cups of Campbell's Soup, seem likely to fulfill their ratings promise.
So whether you're talking triple lutz or power play to American audiences, women have supplied most of the interest in this mildly entertaining Olympiad, again. Substitute pubescent gymnast sprites for petite figure skaters and the board-pounding women's basketball team for the hockey gold medalists and you'll see how these winter games reinforce the media message of 1996: Women athletes have arrived.
Naturally, Madison Avenue has taken note of all this Olympic girl power. Certainly women have dominated the competition for commercial endorsements this time around. There's the three graces of figure skating shilling for Campbell's Soup. Women also show up prominently in IBM's gallery of quirky, unsung Olympic heroes. (It's easily the most charming and memorable of the event's Olympic-themed ad campaigns.)
Picabo Street took the gold twice: She wrinkled her freckled nose for Chap Stick and, along with Piper Lloyd and the hockey gals, was the subject of a Nike poetry-slam ode. Long after the ice dancing fades from memory, I will be contemplating the immortal line: "If Picabo Street was a scary dictator, the name might remind us of gasoline prices." Maybe I could get one of those trenchant snowboarding color commentators to explain it to me.
No overview of the women of the '98 Winter Olympics would be complete without the gold medal-winning ice dancer formerly known as Oksana. Despite the network's best efforts, CBS' coverage of these games has lacked the slick bathos in which NBC bathed last summer's Olympiad. But one up-close-and-perverse look at Pasha Grishuk (the mere sight of those bleach-tortured Harlow-blond locks makes my scalp tingle) made up for a lot.
In this segment, done in atmospheric black and white, the hair was complemented by a feather boa, which Pasha hugged to her bosom while voguing a straight, if off-key, rendition of "Happy Burs-day, Mr. President." It was a much more remarkable performance than anything she did on the ice. I hope Dick the Copywriter was watching; Pasha is a natural for Miller Lite ads.
Clearly, as important as women have become to the appeal of the Olympic games, they are even more important to Olympic advertisers. Think of the now-familiar troupes of sports gear ads aimed at women: the triumph of the individual spirit, the undeniable claim to esteem, the overcoming of all barriers to self-realization. They began as girls-only strategy, but they have since evolved into universal messages that appeal to both genders. Today, our sports heroes are more likely than ever to be heroines.