Yes, I saw Amanda Beard naked. It's not like I had any choice. She practically threw herself at me.
All I had to do was log on to Playboy.com, then click on the July issue preview, then click through 16 pages before I could order the digital version, then enter my e-mail address, home address, credit card number, card expiration date, card secret code, and -- this was odd -- bust size. Then I had to approve the $4.99 charge, download a digital player, download the magazine, then click, page by page, to Page 112, where "The World's Sexiest Athlete" was definitely in her birthday suit.
I don't know if you've seen the eight-page spread (that's probably the wrong word, isn't it?) of Beard, but the photos have created quite a buzz. There's one of her naked underwater. There's a few of her naked in a shallow pool of water. There's one of her naked on a boulder. There's another one of her naked in the sand. Just about every geological surface is covered. The only thing not covered is Beard.
There seem to be three schools of thought on Beard's decision to bare all:
• 1: She's 25, she's hot, and she's a three-time Olympian with a finite marketable shelf life. And, as she says in the accompanying magazine interview, "As someone with a healthy lifestyle, I am trying to send a positive message that different body types are sexy."
• 2: She's 25, she's sort of hot, and she's a three-time Olympian who isn't necessarily a lock to make the 2008 U.S. team for Beijing. So before everybody forgets who she is, Beard is going to squeeze every last dollar she can out of her body and swim fame.
• 3: She's a disgrace to women and she should burn in God's fiery hell.
I'll go with School of Thought No. 2, that she's in it for the money. The intro to the Playboy photos says as much. "At 25 she also happens to be a businesswoman, a spokesperson, a brand name and a mogul in the making," it reads.
At the moment, Beard's brand is her bare body and her Olympic resumé. But unless you've got chlorine-bleached hair and subscribe to Swimming World mag, you probably don't know how many medals Beard has won (two golds, four silvers, one bronze) or what Olympic record she owns (200-meter breaststroke, 2 minutes, 23.37 seconds). But thanks to Playboy, you do know she has three star-shaped tattoos just above her butt.
As a member of the guy race, I've got zero problem with Beard's decision to pose for Playboy, or past decisions to pose for covers and spreads in FHM, Maxim, Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue, and the Speedo print ads. It's her body, her life, her bank account and her legacy.
"What will be most interesting is the reaction in the swimming community and of the people I swim against," she says in Playboy.
I've known a couple of world- and national-class swimmers. Generally speaking -- and I mean this is in a good way -- they're sort of nuts. They train hard. They swim hard. And when it's all done, they tend to party hard. So I'm not expecting a huge backlash from her peers.
The non-swimming community is where Beard is going to take some heat. She'll get ripped for objectifying herself and undermining the advancement of women's sports. In fact, Mary Jo Kane, director of the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, beat everybody to the punch in a 2004 interview with the Dallas Morning News.
" If [elite female athletes] think posing in Playboy is showing off their bodies as competent athletes, they are either naïve or fools," she said.
Maybe Beard is both, but I doubt it. This Web site named her the Hottest Female Athlete of 2005, which, knowing us, meant she got a free year of Insider. And according to Beard's own Web site, she was the most downloaded female athlete during a three-month period in 2004.
So it isn't as if Beard stumbled into this career path. If anything, she's like Melanie Griffith in the movie classic, "Working Girl." Remember the lines Griffith purred to Harrison Ford: "I have a head for business and a bod for sin. Is there anything wrong with that?"
Uh, no. And to be honest, it's hard working up a lot of indignation about the Beard thing, especially since she isn't the first or last woman to use her body for something other than athletics. The same July issue of Playboy features a 20-question interview with race car driver Danica Patrick, who appears in the magazine posed provocatively across three Firestone racing tires wearing little more than stiletto heels and a black dress that could barely cover a steering wheel. She doesn't do the Full Monty as Beard does, but really, is there that much difference between the two?
If Beard is smart, she'll cash her Playboy check and quit saying bimbo-ish things like, "If you want me to swim fast, you have to let me enjoy my life." Please. This has nothing to do with chasing the second hand of a poolside time clock. This is about a nice payday, about raising her public profile, and about positioning herself for a post-Olympic modeling/whatever career. It isn't about the greater good of anyone except Amanda Beard.
And as long as she's honest about it, that's cool.
Personally, I thought she was plenty sexy in her Speedo. But I don't think any less of Beard just because she showed her breasts. Then again, I also don't have to explain any of this to a pool full of hero-worshipping, 12-year-old girls who want to know why their role model isn't wearing any clothes.
There's also a chance this could backfire. If Beard doesn't make the U.S. team, or makes the team but gags in Beijing, then she'll have to live with a new legacy. She'll be the Olympian known more for her birthday suit than her swimsuit. If it comes to that, I hope it was worth the money.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.