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going for gold: hurdling virgins still cause a stir

If the concept of two weeks of Olympic coverage sends you hurtling towards your hard drive ready to demolish five seasons of HBO drama programming, don’t fret – the soap opera that is the lives of professional athletes could entertain you yet.

Pop media interviews with young female sports stars have been problematic in the past. There’s been a tendency to shut them up about their sporting prowess while glamming them up for photo shoots, often in a bid to make us appreciate their surprisingly good looks or sponsor products. Given that, one could say that tone of HBO sport’s interview with US hurdler Lolo Jones wasn’t too surprising.

The interview, which revealed that the 29 year old Olympic track star was waiting for marriage to lose her virginity, was a minor internet sensation and coaxed a troupe of sports commentators, stars, feminists, sex therapists and athletic fanatics out into cyberspace to debate the nature of the confession. When Jones admitted that she considered her virginity a ‘gift to give to my husband’, the media jumped to establish links between her and other athletic virgins, like NFL footballer Tim Tebow. Headlines and captions expressed both affection and bafflement, including one particularly straightforward title from The Age’s Life and Style section which read: ‘Lolo Jones…Olympian and 29 year old virgin’ – as though the two were known to be mutually exclusive categories.

The interview was followed by what was surely a plum week of publicity for both Jones and the countless Christian organisations in favour of abstinence before marriage, but it does raise some interesting questions about our reactions to both athletes and virgins respectively.

First, there’s the question of how we expect female athletes to behave. As has been expanded on by countless commentators in recent weeks, the allure of a sports star’s private life and values is often much tastier click-bait than their skill or results.  While voices have raised concern about the sexualisation of female sports stars in the name of ratings, the Jones affair builds upon this despite chastity being the topic of conversation.

When she pointed out that she’d had ‘many opportunities’ and that remaining chaste until marriage was ‘harder than training for the Olympics’, the network devoted a good deal of time to highlighting how stunning Jones was and how truly difficult her decision was to see through. There was a good deal of surprise in HBO’s reaction. How could a seemingly well-adjusted, talented athlete simultaneously be so very innocent?

Then there’s the public’s response to ‘famous virgins’ overall. This is an area not exclusive to the sporting world, and it’s garnered a fair bit of airtime over the past couple of weeks. If we’ve established that virgins make good gossip news, how does the media feel about them?

If the Jones case is anything to go by, the answer might be fairly ambivalent. While her tone when interviewed was quite erudite and humorous, not everyone feels that chaste Olympians are funny business, especially when religion or conservative tradition plays a part in decision making. The hurdler and other openly abstinent public figures copped a fair bit of criticism, namely over the value that they placed on virginity itself. There were opinion pieces that took the notion of virginity as a ‘gift’ to task, questioning exactly how sensible it was to situate their sexual activity as such a key definer of identity. Then matchmaking began on Twitter to ‘fix’ the problem, with some suggesting that Jones find another virgin sports star to start a relationship with.

There were also broader critiques that took aim at the expectations of those that choose to wait for Mr (or Mrs) Right. Pieces of this ilk even go so far as to suggest that those saving themselves for the ‘correct’ partner well into adult life could face long term problems with sexual performance, from anxiety over sex to ailments such as vaginismus that could hinder sexual activity for long periods.

The rebuttals of Jones’ announcement dueled with those who supported the virgin stance. After all, neither she nor many other so-called ‘celebrity virgins’ have ever really pushed the issue onto other young people, instead framing the topic in terms of their own wants and needs. As sex columnist and erotica author Rachel Kramer Bussel suggested last week, in a world that has a mile long list of ways women can ‘incorrectly’ practice their sexuality, criticism of those who wait to lose ‘it’ only subtracts from everybody’s ability to exercise control over their own sexuality without interference.

Weeks later, sports pages are still referring to the story while tracking the US track team’s progress. It seems that in a world where headlines bemoan the sexualisation of youth, those on the chaster end of the scale bother us in a different way. With the media warming up for Olympics coverage, it probably won’t be the last we hear of the sex lives, or lack thereof, of athletes. If hurdling bores you to tears, maybe the virginity debate will hold your interest until the closing ceremony.

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