Capturing the female athlete's 'game face'

A new photo exhibition chronicles how women's sports have mirrored changes in society.

When Congress passed a set of education reforms in 1972 that included Title IX, the face of women's sports in the United States was forever changed. The legislation required that federally funded schools provide equal athletic resources for both sexes - and as a result, more women today play sports than ever before.

"Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like?," a photography exhibition now showing at the Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industries Building in Washington, is a tribute to the success of Title IX. The exhibit will eventually move to Salt Lake City, where the 2002 Olympic Winter Games will be held in February, and then visit 19 other cities throughout the US.

The 139 photos are arranged in five sections, much like a sporting event: "Get Ready," "Start," "Action," "Finish," and "Aftermath." The exhibition begins with the now-famous shot of Brandi Chastain after the US victory in World Cup soccer two years ago. After having just pulled off her jersey to reveal her "jog bra," she is on her knees with her fists raised in joyous celebration. That picture is followed by the teenage American weightlifter Cheryl Haworth, who is standing on a tree-lined dirt road solemnly holding a massive log above her head.

"I had a vision to be able to sit in a space like this and look at pictures of women's bodies where the focus wasn't on them as objects or their sex appeal," says Jane Gottesman, the co-curator who came up with the idea for the exhibition. "It's their functionality that's beautiful."

Ms. Gottesman, herself a former high school lacrosse player in New Jersey, went on to become a sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle. She was disappointed, however, with how women's sports were covered - all too often they were denied space in the paper, and, when they did make the headlines, it was usually for reasons other than success on the playing field.

Along with co-curator Geoffrey Biddle, she pored through thousands of images, many of them supplied by The Associated Press, others from big-name photographers like Ansel Adams and Annie Liebowitz. Gottesman also interviewed as many of the athletes as possible to learn the stories behind the photos.

One of Gottesman's favorite quotes, she says, comes from Haworth, the 5 ft., 9 in., weightlifter who weighs nearly 300 pounds. "Everybody is good at something," Haworth says, "and too often people think because they aren't the same size or shape as some other people, that they'll never find what they're good at. They think they're finished and give up."

The images range from the mundane - a young girl tossing a ball into the air and trying to catch it - to the ferocious - four college rugby players fighting for a loose ball in the rain and mud. "The project is more about women than it is about sports," Ms. Biddle says. "Sport is our prism to look at women's role in society and culture." In one of the exhibition's most poignant works, a 1996 photo called "Winner Comforts Loser," two runners sit on the track after completing a race. The winner has her arm around the loser's shoulder and is gently wiping a tear from her eye.

The exhibition also makes it clear how far women have come. A photo from the early 1900s depicts a tennis player standing stiffly on a court, lining up a forehand. She's wearing a tie, long dress, and top hat. Nearly a century later, we see Kellie Jolly, the University of Tennessee basketball star, as she prepares for a NCAA championship game. Stretched out on a bed in her hotel room, Jolly has a team helping her get ready for competition: one woman to tape her ankles, another to brush her long, blonde hair.

"Look at that," Gottesman says. "She's like a racehorse! What a great athlete!"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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