Gladiators go glam

By Caley Chelios

Olympic skeleton racer Katie Uhlaendar, 31, flies 80 mph head first on a 37-inch sled down frozen tracks. She is a glamorous girl on fire, with an aerodynamic speed suit on her body and lash extensions, red hair extensions and Mac lip liner under her helmet.

For World Cup competitions in Austria and Italy, she packs her 63-pound sled, weightlifting shoes, cleats – and makeup. “It’s crazy trying to maintain beauty on tour,” said Uhlaendar, who likes to look and feel good. “I do my hair and my lashes for me.”

No one tracks how many elite women athletes wear makeup, but glam shots are the norm in USA team-bio pictures and in Instagram posts. Uhlaendar estimates that nearly 75 percent of world-class female athletes wear makeup during competition.

Like Uhlaendar, women’s wrestlers and Olympic weight lifters try to command respect in “masculine” sports, balancing the duality of image and beauty with toughness.

“You’re expected to smile, be ditzy and cute all the time,” said Uhlaendar.

For decades, female athletes have gone glam, at least in part to land jobs and sponsors. Former U.S. national swimming champion Esther Williams became a 1940’s pin-up girl and movie star. And 1970’s tennis star Chris Evert became famous for winning major tournaments but also for her chic style and hair ribbons on the court.

Olympians Lolo Jones, a hurdler and bobsledder, Alex Morgan, a soccer player, and Lindsey Vonn, a skier have attracted attention for their skills and their looks. In fact, Vonn poses in nothing but a body-painted “bikini” in the upcoming 2016 Sports Illustrated annual swimsuit addition.

“High school male athletes make a million dollars and don’t have to take off their clothes and pose sexually,” said Jennifer Ring, professor of political science and feminist theory and author of “Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball.” “Danica Patrick has to put on a bathing suit and sprawl on her car.”

Seventeen-year-old wrestler Maya Nelson, who wears mascara and jewelry off the mat, said society wrongly associates being feminine and attractive with putting on makeup. “There’s a lot of beauty in wrestling in our strength and our agility on the mats,” Nelson said. “I wanted to be daddy’s little girl. I started wrestling when I was four and daddy’s little girl didn’t work out so well.”

For years, Ronda Rousey, who won a bronze medal in judo in the 2008 Olympics and reigned as UFC women’s bantamweight champion until last November, defied the need to appear like Kate Upton. Even though she is one of three 2016 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition cover models, she’s wearing a one-piece. “She is a feminine-looking woman, but she doesn’t go out of her way to look sexual or overdo the make up and polish,” said Ring.

Unlike female figure skaters and gymnasts, women in power sports may unconsciously feel societal pressure to signal their heterosexuality. “A lot of it is homophobic,” said Ring.

But Nelson admires Rousey for her “hard-core” attitude. “People always tell me, you know you don’t look like a wrestler,” Nelson said. “And I say, ‘Well, what’s a wrestler supposed to look like?’”

Wrestlers like Nelson and Brittney Roberts, No. 2-ranked in the U.S. at 72 kg, are using the make up and glitz as an accessory not a necessity.

“Nowadays I hardly ever see girls wear makeup before practice,” Roberts said. “But after practice, if we go to a dinner, we’ll dress up and put on make up.”

There’s beauty and grace in Olympic lifting, too, said 20-year-old weightlifter Deirdre Lenzsch, an Olympic hopeful who highlights her long curly blond hair. “I respect my body for being strong and being capable. It’s an incredible machine like a car, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t give it a nice paint job.”

She wears mascara even when she’s tossing up 80 kilos on a clean and jerk. “I consider [makeup] to be a form of art, and I think it gives you a little bit of confidence,” she said. “I enjoy putting on makeup. Something about looking pretty gives me confidence, but being strong does not have to be separated from being beautiful.”

Photo at top: Katie Uhlaender drives to training. (Katie Uhlaender)