They are calling these Olympics the "Glamour Games." That is, I imagine, because virtually every one of the world's top female females has posed provocatively at some point in the past few months, in an attempt to show the world that strong, muscular women can be attractive and sexy, too.
Ever since Brandi Chastain stripped down to her sports bra after winning last year's World Cup, it's become the rage for women athletes to show off their bodies. Jenny Thompson's breasts. Therese Alshammer's tattooed lower back. Entire teams posing in scanty attire for team calendars. (The U.S. women's softball team has been exposed, too, but that's a different story.)
It's become so pervasive that the issue came up Friday afternoon at a women's weightlifting competition, of all places. After winning a bronze medal for the United States on Friday, super heavyweight Cheryl Haworth was asked if there was any particular glamour in hoisting large amounts of metal over her head on a bar.
"Glamour?" said Haworth, who weighs 307 pounds. "Whatever you see, if you think it's glamorous, it's going to be glamorous. Glamour is in the eye of the beholder."
So weightlifting is glamorous, she was asked?
"To me it is," she said. "Being strong and having the ability to do what I do is beautiful, and it's fun."
There was a certain elemental beauty in the first women's weightlifting competition in Olympic history. There's something raw and compelling about watching athletes confront one of man's most basic urges -- to test the outer limits of his (or her) own strength.
It was also pretty neat to walk out of the Exhibition Center on Darling Harbour, knowing you had just watched the world's strongest woman in action. That would be China's Ding Meiyuan, an avid reader who broke world records in the snatch (135 kilograms), clean and jerk (165 kg) and overall (300 kg, or roughly 660 pounds) to capture the first-ever women's gold.
Agata Wrobel of Poland was second in the super heavyweight class (165 pounds and over), while Haworth, an engaging 17-year-old from Savannah, Ga., was third. Haworth set personal bests in all three categories as she became the youngest American ever to win an Olympic weightlifting medal.
There was a lot of woman on that medal stand Friday. Of course, by that time a lot of folks in the IOC probably wished the sport of weightlifting would go stand in the corner, or disappear altogether. After three more positive drug tests -- one of them a woman's -- the entire Bulgarian team was tossed out of the Games earlier on Friday.
Drugs have always been an issue in weightlifting. Having women compete isn't going to make the issue go away. The more competitors, the more the chance of a positive drug test. But having women compete can at least soften the sport's image, especially with a charming American girl embracing her role as an ambassador for the sport and an example for plus-size females.
"I've been happy from the moment I lifted my first weight," Haworth said. "It's been great. Hopefully, weightlifting will become more popular in our country. It's a wonderful sport and more women need to get involved."
Haworth started lifting weights at 13. She wanted to be stronger for softball. The next thing she knew, she had quit softball and dedicated herself to the weights. Mike Cohen, her coach, took one look at her and said he'd never seen a girl so strong. He was right. Within three years, she had set the U.S. junior and senior records in her weight class.
She came to Sydney hoping to win a medal. It wasn't until she arrived here that she realized how badly she wanted it. Ding and Wrobel were the clear favorites for gold and silver coming in. Cohen felt Haworth had an outside chance for gold, but he and the other coaches knew it was more likely that she'd be fighting for third place.
After the snatch (lifting the bar straight overhead without resting it on the shoulders), it was evident that gold and silver were out of reach. Ding and Wrobel were well ahead. Haworth was in third place, 10 kilograms ahead of the nearest competitor. So Cohen decided to play it conservatively in the second half of the competition, the clean and jerk.
Haworth lifted 140, 142.5 and 145 kilograms in her three lifts, making all three with relative ease to ensure herself of a bronze. She probably could have cleared a heavier weight, but there was really no point. She had no realistic shot at silver or gold.
"The strategy was quite clear," Cohen said. "The idea was to come home from the Olympics with a medal. The competition was thick, as you could see. An athlete has to put all her faith in the coach's decision. The coaches felt the smart thing to do was go from 140 to 142.5 and lock in the bronze.
"Cheryl has improved and she will continue to improve, as long as she wants to. She'll be 21 years old in 2004, still a baby in the sport."
From here, Haworth goes back to high school. She attends an arts academy in Savannah, although she was home schooled as she prepared for Sydney. She is an aspiring artist and sculptor and wants to go to college to pursue her art. Her long-range goal is to win a gold medal at the 2004 Games in Athens.
In the meantime, she would like to get on the Rosie O'Donnell show. She's done Jay Leno and Regis Philbin, but Rosie hasn't asked yet. "I'd like to go on," Haworth said. "Whatever she wants. It's her show."
O'Donnell could find worse guests than America's Strongest Woman, a 307-pound Olympic medalist who believes she can inspire women who don't quite fit into a size three, or into society's narrow ideal of the perfect female.
"You know, I hope so," Haworth said. "I hope it shows women they shouldn't stop looking for something to be good at. You never know. You could become . . . glamorous."