Picabo Street stood at the bottom of the women's super-giant slalom run in Nagano, Japan, and waited to see if her time would stand up as the best in the world. She chatted with supporters, fans, hangers-on, and reporters, smiling all the while. CBS TV cameras and microphones picked her up saying, "I am a true racehorse if I win this thing," but there seemed more humility than hubris in the remark. Only recently fully recovered from a career-threatening knee injury suffered a little over a year ago, she truly didn't know how she would compare under the harshest pressure against the toughest competition. She hooted and hollered passionately for her friends on the ski tour, especially when--in the best of all possible worlds--her good friend Michaela Dorfmeister of Austria finished a hundredth of a second behind her. Street rushed out and embraced Dorfmeister, then gushed to the cameras that Dorfmeister had overcome a recent thumb injury sustained in a crash, just as Street had recovered from a knee injury and--only days before--a nasty fall on the World Cup ski tour. When the event was over, when all the racers had skied the course for the one and only time, a nearby friend slipped Street a cell phone that had already been dialed to her mother in Hawaii, and the TV cameras were still there to capture her, alternately laughing and crying while still smiling all the while, as she told her mom, "I won."
The Olympics usually turn out to be a showcase for female athletes, who otherwise so rarely receive equal attention in the sports world with their male counterparts. Yet in Picabo Street's performance at these games--in her performance off the slopes as well as on--there seemed to be an entirely new embodiment of the female warrior athlete. For one thing--a thing most important in this mass-media age, when fans see Street not only skiing but killing time at the bottom of the slopes and then talking to her mother (a scene U.S. viewers first saw on tape almost 24 hours after it happened, thanks to some dunderheaded programming decisions by CBS)--Street was comfortable with the attention, a quote machine on the order of a Charles Barkley. Yet the personality she projected--as a media star and as an athlete--was so different from the usual jock attitude, so womanly (there is really no better way to put it), that she seemed to redefine not only what a female athlete should be but what all athletes should be. Compare her sportsmanship--so clearly based on a genuine affection for her friends and a yen for them to do well, if hopefully not as well as herself--to the recent tussle between Barkley and Michael Jordan in a nationally televised basketball game between the Bulls and the Houston Rockets. Jordan and Barkley bumped chests, talked trash, and attempted to outdo each other single-handedly, at the expense of their teammates. Street, playing an individual sport, cheered and hooted for her competitors while showing relief and pride as her time stood up. What's more, while Street has a womanly body--all soft edges, from her curly hair and chipmunk cheeks to her rounded arms and shapely backside--especially when compared with the chiseled musculature of a Jordan or a Scottie Pippen, there is obviously a hard, steely frame within, a body and a will tempered by her knee injury and the year it took to rehabilitate from reconstructive surgery. Finally and perhaps most important, she proved as adept at describing her attributes as any reporter. She projected her sense of derring-do by telling CNN that she thought of speeding downhill at a dangerous pace as yet another close friend, and that during her rehabilitation she had missed that friend most of all, embracing it on her return to the slopes. Commenting on how her chummy openness on tour jelled with her competitive spirit, she explained, "Life's about being able to chill and have fun until it's time to unleash my tiger within." She has referred to herself as "a big-game babe."
What a woman; what an athlete.
The great but for the most part unacknowledged truth that Street came close to expressing with her comment about being "a true racehorse" is that winning changes everything, especially at the Olympic games, where the pressure and the competition are cranked up to the maximum level. Winning changes how others define one; it changes how one defines oneself. Street took home a silver medal from the 1994 winter games in Lillehammer, Norway, but it wasn't until afterward that she began to win Alpine World Cup events at a record rate for an American, becoming the first U.S. women's downhill season champion in 1996. The knee injury, sustained in December of that year, threatened to keep her from receiving her fair due as an athlete, threatened to turn her into just another overhyped Olympic Nike babe--the Mary Decker Slaney of the ski slopes. Admit it, her line about having fun and unleashing the tiger within sounds distinctly different coming from a gold medalist than from a mere silver medalist.
After all, it's easy for losers to have respect for their competitors--for their betters, one might add--and it's easy for them to have a happy-go-lucky attitude. What makes Street remarkable is that she has combined those qualities with a will to win quite unlike the traditional male attitude toward sport, most pithily put in Vince Lombardi's line that "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Street's whole demeanor suggested that winning was important, but that its obsessive pursuit could distort a person as a human being.
Maybe that state of mind isn't such a departure. Male athletes from Bulls coach Phil Jackson back to golf great Bobby Jones and beyond have stressed respect between competitors: sportsmanship, to use a word tainted by inherent sexism. Yet it certainly seems different exhibited by Street, perhaps because of the marked contrast she presents to the conventional female athlete--especially in a U.S. way of thinking, which has always tried to make figure-skating "ladies" the darlings of the winter games. The infamous 1994 figure-skating brouhaha was a carnival of stereotypes--the ruthlessly envious working-class wannabe Tonya Harding; the patrician, embittered Nancy Kerrigan; and the waifish Oksana Baiul--but one can go back to the catfight between "the two Carmens," Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas, at the 1988 Calgary games for an almost equally cartoonish illustration. Not to diminish either Baiul or Witt for performing so well under pressure--they are great Olympic athletes--but they never projected the sort of sportsmanship Street does. It has been refreshing that current U.S. skaters Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, and Nicole Bobek have shown genuine tolerance for one another--going so far as to appear in the same soup commercial--but they come up short of the genuine affection and heartfelt good wishes Street extended to her friendly competitors.
In fact, it's interesting to note how this new image of the female athlete--the effusive yet driven image Street embodies better than anyone else--is propelled not so much by more sensitive reporting of the events (the news media can be as sexist as ever; witness the figure-skating coverage) as by Madison Avenue, whose ads give U.S. TV viewers their most persistent ideal of what life in all its aspects should be. Street has benefited from a couple of wonderful Nike spots--the new one that has a "poet" meditating on the meaning of her name, as well as the one that found her racing the wind downhill while giving vent to what has become her high-pitched trademark "woooee" cry--but she is not alone. Cammi Granato and the U.S. women's hockey team enjoyed a similar push, to name just one example. Again, it's not a newfound mainstream sensitivity that has brought recognition to these athletes, but a free market that demanded it. Women are being given their heroes--heroes that look good in sleek, form-fitting athletic outfits-- because they're finally spending as much at sporting-goods stores as the golfers who made media stars of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer (not to mention Tiger Woods).
Cynics might point to the not incidental fact that many of the female athletes who receive such exposure are, first and foremost, beautiful. I'd respond with the Camille Paglia counterattack that beauty is not to be sneered at. Beautiful bodies in beautiful motion are a source of pleasure whether one is watching Hubbard Street Dance Chicago or Pippen feeding Jordan on an alley oop. It should surprise no one that Jordan's cologne will always outsell a Gheorge Muresan's. What's important--to draw parallels with my personal guilty pleasure, women's pro beach volleyball--is to recognize that while a Holly McPeak may be more beautiful than a Nancy Reno (with or without the breast augmentation), she is a better volleyball player than a Gabrielle Reece. What's more, while Street is distinctly womanly, she is not a conventional beauty like Canadian speed skater Catriona LeMay-Doan. Rather, great athletes sometimes create their own standards of beauty. Before Jordan, the only hairless men to gain wide notoriety were Telly Savalas and Yul Brynner--neither exactly a matinee idol. Street may well beat Barbie to the punch in creating a new standard of beauty based on a less prominent bust and a more powerful, athletic trunk.
Finally, looks had little to do with the U.S. women's hockey team--padded and helmeted and all but anonymous as they were, just like their male counterparts. Yet while the ballyhooed U.S. men--the American version of a National Hockey League dream team--were scrambling to get back into medal contention after losing to archrival Canada, the U.S. women were swamping the competition and coming from a 4-1 third-period deficit to beat Canada. In the gold medal rematch they played disciplined, precise hockey to win 3-1. They were scrappy and courageous throughout.
So was Street, but in a different way altogether. The members of the U.S. women's hockey team bumped and pounded and in the end reportedly indulged in some rather mean-spirited trash talk with their Canadian rivals, trash talk the U.S. players denied and said the Canadians had manufactured in an attempt to psych themselves up--all of which showed women can play that win-at-any-cost game as well as any man. It was Street, wearing the snarling tiger within on her ski helmet and daring to run the women's super-G on downhill skis, but also singing and swaying with the tunes on her headphones in the moments leading up to the downhill, who was the new definition of the female warrior athlete. Perhaps what most distinguished her attitude was her sixth-place finish in the downhill. Her archrival Katja Seizinger of Germany won, but when yet another Street friend, Pernilla Wiberg of Sweden, finished second, again it was Street at the bottom of the mountain with a heartfelt hug. In Shakespeare, it is a female character who says, "The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven." The quality of sportsmanship is not strained either, but emerges naturally from respect and genuine affection between competitors. It should come as no surprise that we were reminded of this by a woman.