By Laura Boswell
Special to Page 3

They crush balls into the court, swim faster than Flipper and punish their competition with the ferocity of Lindsay Lohan's dad at a family reunion.

FHM
If you weren't tuning in already, now you are.
But stand them next to one another in white bikinis and suddenly they are tender, demure, and innocent. They cradle one another's taut waists and gently caress the smalls of eachother's backs. So pure, so sweet, so loving ...

So full of it.

Nice try, but we can still see power behind those pouts. They're female Olympians, and just as they are dominating their respective sports, they'll dominate every guy's dreams until Beijing 2008.

That's exactly what they want.

And I say, good for them ... I think.

We're here, great rears -- get used to it!
America's best female athletes have come to a magazine stand near you. Or rather, the best female athletes who also happen to be tall, tan and toned.

Five Team USA women, including volleyball player Logan Tom and swimmer Amanda Beard, currently grace the cover of FHM's September issue and are featured in its "Sexy Olympic Special."

High jumper and Barbie reincarnation Amy Acuff, who also appears in FHM, fittingly set her bar even higher as Playboy's September cover girl. In its "Women of the Olympics" pictorial, Acuff is one of eight female Olympians who chose to bare all for the cameras.

Surprisingly, unlike similar escapades of the past -- think Katarina Witt -- there hasn't been too much flak accompanying Acuff's decision to pose nude. It seems like the higher authorities, including the USOC, are giving the matter a collective shrug and moving on to other problems (like how to get as many eyeballs in the stands).

Meanwhile, the athletes' responses have been gleefully defiant.

Of course I'm concerned that by posing nude or nearly so, these athletes might be "selling out." And I'm concerned that their actions might be undoing previous strides made for women in terms of earning respect as athletes. But mostly, I'm concerned because I'm really not all that concerned.

As a woman, and former college athlete, I should be more affected and have stronger opinions on this topic. And looking around, I can't help but wonder why others aren't more upset as well.

Has American culture come to this? Are sex and sports so commonly intertwined that FHM and Playboy have essentially become a sexier version of a Wheaties box?

I guess so.

But it's tough to judge these women without walking a mile in their um ... bikinis.

FHM
Logan Tom is no dummy, she's a Stanford grad.
Cover girls or gaffes?
Collectively, female athletes finally seem to be demanding their due, even if it means copping to the old adage "sex sells."

And why not? They're expected to be aggressive in their chosen sport. Why shouldn't that translate into their self-marketing efforts as well?

This particularly holds true for Olympians who don't see the endorsement dollars of higher-profile sports. It's not uncommon for Olympians to toil in obscurity and poverty to fulfill their dreams. Stories like that of gymnast Mohini Bhardwaj, who sacrificed by eating Power Bars and delivering pizzas during training, are all too common.

Ironically, were it not for a $20,000 check from pin-up girl Pamela Anderson, Bhardwaj may have not made it to Athens.

As far as the casual viewer is concerned, sports like gymnastics, volleyball and swimming come around once every four years. So, if not for the additional exposure, would you even recognize Amanda Beard if you saw her walking down the street?

At best, you might say, "Hey, isn't that the girl ... who did something ... athletic?"

After hanging up their sneakers, some Olympians aspire to be fulltime models. On her personal website, Acuff displays her modeling portfolio right next to her high jump stats.

And this is not a "male athletes get more money and attention than girls" thing. In fact, in this case, the women actually have a rare, albeit dubious, advantage over the fellas.

Today's female athlete can land just as many traditional corporate marketing deals as the guys, but for men, modeling outlets are pretty much limited to pseudo-sexy spreads like People's "50 Most Eligible Bachelors." There is no male counterpart to Playboy, unless you're counting Playgirl and that's just .... eeewww!

Sure, Michael Phelps is set for life but ... Quick! Name a member of the men's water polo team.

Nope, I can't either.

On a slow sports day, you could probably catch a televised beach volleyball game, but for the most part, to anyone outside that sport's community, Stein Metzger and Dax Holdren are just exceptionally tall guys who have to eat and pay the rent just like you and me.

Both male and female Olympians have small windows of opportunity in which to market themselves. They have to strike hard and fast -- even if the target is somewhat questionable. Otherwise, they're one sprained ankle or missed landing away from delivering pizzas and dreaming of what could have been.

Brandi Chastain
Brandi Chastain brought jog bras to every guy's attention.
Buff and beautiful
Let's not forget that these female Olympians have some rock solid justifications for their cover girl aspirations -- starting with their six-pack abs and moving outward to just about every other toned and sculpted muscle on their bodies.

They have busted their butts, both literally and figuratively to get to the Games and the results can not be disputed. Unlike waif-like runway models, their bodies are trained, healthy and (somewhat) attainable. They're all sport and no silicone.

Why shouldn't they shake what their mamas (and 1,000 crunches a day) gave 'em?

And they're preconditioned to be comfortable in their own skin; their "uniforms" are swimsuits, bikinis, and leotards. So, it's not much of a stretch to pose in similarly "suggestive" attire.

I still don't understand why a big deal was made of Brandi Chastain pulling off her shirt after the U.S. women won the 1999 World Cup. A sports bra is a common sight at the gym and/or the local park. It's about as risqué as a sweatsock!

But here's the real deal: Whether it's guised as "an honor" or as a "boost for your sport," secretly the ability to pose for photos wearing blush instead of Ben-Gay, is also a great, big power trip. International attention is flattering, exciting and somewhat intoxicating, particularly on a sexy, not sandy stage.

These athletes have sacrificed and worked hard their entire lives. They've forgone proms and parties for practice. It's difficult to fault them for wanting to strut their stuff and say, "Hey, check me out!"

Who wouldn't want to get all gussied up and airbrushed, and get paid big bucks for it? And that goes for the guys too!

Matter of choice
Kerri Walsh is 6-foot-3, beautiful and whip thin. She is also the "world's best beach volleyball player." Walsh declined the magazine shoots. And I also say, good for her.

Walsh claims that she's a "terrible poser" and stated that the FHM cover is "really positive for athletes," but I can't help but respect her decision regardless of her reasoning.

No matter how I try to justify it, there's still something off about America's top female athletes being glamorized for their looks.

They're strong, smart, athletic and beautiful, and as a result, they're desirable. But there's still something inside me that believes being an Olympic athlete should be enough to stand on its own merits, and that Olympians belong on Wheaties boxes and not in men's magazines.

Ultimately, I've got to turn the question on myself: If I could fit into one of those bikinis would I do it?

Hell, yeah!

Laura Boswell covers sports and the city in and around Washington, DC. Turn-ons: The Daily Show, board games and a really good vodka tonic. Turn-offs: Fur coats, diet soda and weak penalties for parole violators. She can be reached at lauraeboswell@comcast.net.