(This story was published in 2001).

By: Tim Miller

Copyright 2001
Reprinted by permission of the author

(Tim Miller is an internationally known performance artist and writer)

OK, I admit it, I was definitely one of those queer boys who got picked last–or on a good day next to last–for every team sport except square dancing. With that trauma lurking in my mind, I approached “Sportsex,” Toby Miller’s remarkable exploration of organized sports, erotics, and culture, with more than a little trepidation. Instead of having to relive the terror of seventh grade I was delighted to discover in “Sportsex” a hugely enjoyable, smart and sexy examination of the role sports and athletes play in the contemporary lesbian and gay sexual imagination.

Toby Miller guides us through this tricky terrain with great joy and profound insights, fully aware of the mine field he has found himself on. He writes in the introduction to “Sportsex,” “And there lies the secret of something alongside my hatred of sports: the thrill when someone passes a football expertly and you run onto it; the sensation of receiving a hard-hit stroke and using its strength to return the ball to you colleague; the fun of running alongside others; and the pleasure of swimming in a creek with friends. Adrienne Rich refers to this as ‘what makes the body shoot into its pure and irresistible curve.’ Such joys are quite distant from the horror-show world of competition, authority and critique that characterized the ritual humiliation of schooldays.”

“Sportsex” dares us to look anew at the huge cultural motor of organized sports to see how it informs gay people’s bodies, sexuality and culture. I talked recently with Toby Miller about sports, lesbian and gay erotic symbols and Ian Thorpe’s body at the Olympics.

Tim Miller Question: As I read your remarkable book “Sportsex,” I was struck that with all the extensive intellectual and critical focus examining almost every aspect of popular culture, sports has been largely left out. What led you to go to the forbidden land of contemporary sports?

Toby Miller Answer: I have been very concerned that cultural studies has devoted a vast amount of energy and time to soap opera, reality TV, hanging out in shopping malls, you name it, but has done very little about the most prevalent form of popular culture in world history. Sport is so important, both as something people watch and something they do, as well. Bertolt Brecht once said a sports arena was a place where you might start a revolution. Today, we’re more likely to see a new cable channel! Either way, it needs to be addressed.

Why the lack of interest? I think this neglect has been because folks see sport as anti-intellectual, right-wing, and unseemly. In gender terms, it’s regarded by many people as misogynistic and homophobic. But I perceive major changes in the way sport and sexuality are unfolding. We live in an era when commercial forces have permeated sport so thoroughly that men are overtly exposed to a sexualizing gaze. Their bodies are objects of sale to gay male and straight female spectators. The pressure on the male body to look beautiful is now beginning to approximate what women have suffered for generations. There are some positive aspects to this change. Hence the book. It took me 13 years to get there, but now it’s done!

Question: I was really haunted by what you wrote in the introduction to “Sportsex” that “beauty is as much a part of male sports discourse today as toughness, while grace is the avowed compatriot of violence.” What did you discover about this dynamic tension as you wrote “Sportsex?”

Answer: It is a dynamic tension. Sport is full of weird contradictions. We are constantly told that it is all about competition, but of course it’s just as much about collaboration, especially in team sports. We’re told that it’s a place where the cream of talent and work rise to the top, but as the success of wealthy sports teams and the failure of poor ones shows, that success comes at a price. In aesthetic/sexual terms, we often associate sports with aggression and power–a fast serve in tennis, a right hook in boxing, a defensive tackle in football. But it’s also and equally about beauty–the mechanics of the tennis shot, the taut bodies in boxing trunks, the tight pants in football. And the two tendencies have become intertwined. So just as the National Football League advertises itself as a tough, “real” man’s game, it now markets its players as sex symbols whose mere appearance in their drag-like uniforms is a sign of beauty (supposedly!). Of course, the tension is more complex than that–the beauty is not so easily divorced from the power. They work together.

Question: It’s interesting to me that gay men’s almost universally negative experiences of organized sports in childhood (the horror! the ball is coming to me!) is frequently doubled in adult life with an erotic fascination for the bodies of sports figures. The lesbian cliche of being in love with your gym teacher brings up a whole other angle of how sports play out–as it were–in our lives. What did you observe about how sports both informs and provokes gay and lesbian erotics?

Answer: Well, it’s pretty clear from a lot of lesbian writing that sports have been a venue for meeting people, forming alliances, and creating community. Conversely, as you say, the experience for gay men is often very alienating. That changed, as the buff body of the ’80s clone became fashionable, and the reality of queer culture’s ubiquity became clear. To hear a sports commentator get excited over another man’s performance is to hear something very erotic. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. He’s done it! He’s done it!” Remind you of anything? To me, it’s akin to a powerful orgasm.

Question: I love that! It does make me wonder what was I really looking at when I saw Ian Thorpe’s glamour shot in Newsweek, which was on my computer screen saver all last fall? His body? His Australian body? (My partner is Aussie, so I’m a sucker for that.) His Australian swimmer’s body? His expensive wrist watch on his Australian swimmer’s body?

Answer: Well, Tim, your powers of observation, and pleasure in observing, are remarkable! Of course, you’d not have seen the watch or the contours of Thorpe’s trim, taut, and terrific form if he hadn’t been a swimmer of exceptional quality. And you’d have seen much less of him prior to this era. Before, swimmers were supposedly amateurs. Now, that hypocrisy has gone, and they are up for sale. So that means you see him as a commercial figure as well as an athletic one, although they are interdependent. You see, as it were, more of him. And more of it is conditioned through the commercial realities of his media persona and means of making money. Newsweek knows it has three key audiences for its coverage of him–gay men, straight women, and sports fans of whatever orientation. That makes more money than just appealing to the old sports fan, supposedly straight and drawn purely by athletic performance, not by looks (but who knows about that?).

Question: Is there sometimes a pretty tricky “eroticizing the oppressor ” stuff going on here. All right, I’ll just speak for myself here. I was a bit appalled with myself recently when I clipped out the photo of the Croatian tennis star Goran Ivanisevic who had snarled his anti-gay slurs after winning Wimbledon and then proceeded to head back to Croatia and strip down to his bikini briefs in public. Such a hot homophobe! He’s still on my refrigerator! Is sports the last refuge of un-politically correct erotics?

Answer: Goran Ivanisevic is a very troubling character for many of us. Sports are dominated by conservatives–every golfer on the PGA tour is a registered R-word voter. Tennis players, especially women, leave school well before they have learnt the basics of social history. Most pro athletes subscribe to a notion of natural ability added to hard work producing their success, and extrapolate from that to other activities. They’re not prone to looking at inequality, oppression, etc. unless it directly derives from their own childhoods–and even then, they often understand their success as the result of a merit-based system. Plus, despite all the advances made to appeal to queers, pro sports is still resolutely homophobic.

Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman had a brawl at an ESPN restaurant in August when they met to promote their upcoming heavyweight boxing world title bout. This followed Rahman referring to Lewis as “gay” because the latter had used the courts to initiate their contest. Weird to think of the law as a safe house for queers! But this tension, this dynamic, this need to define masculinity as ‘not-gay’ remains very very powerful indeed. That said, Lewis and Rahman are revealing our cultural tensions in a brutal way, living out the contradictions (including the suspicion that part of this was a publicity stunt). Homophobia is everywhere. Queers grow up with it all around, including, many say, within themselves. It’s a tough negotiation. There is a side to sexual fantasy, as we all know, that is bad, bad, bad. Power is hot. Sanitized sex is not. We often dream about and get off on things we don’t approve of or wish to do. And sometimes we cross the boundary!

Question: “Sportsex” beautifully explores the complicated gender-bending that goes on in sports: the butt-slapping, wild hugs, exaggerated almost drag-like behavior for the men and the critique sometime hurled at women athletes for “playing like a man?” What kind of genders are being “performed” by these behaviors?

Answer: These are means, I believe, of extending joy beyond the bureaucratic norms of everyday life. They reference a pre-adult, pre-adolescent moment, when touching intimately has not been defined and theorized as transgressive. They represent a wordless play of difference. Folks who would be uncomfortable touching another man in any other context reach out to do so unfailingly and joyously at play. When they do that, they open up our repertoire of relating.

Question: Our experience of sports is inevitable very personal and embodied. You bring some really lovely and honest personal narratives of your own experience with sports as you grew up. What did you discover about your own relationship to the subject as you wrote the book?

Answer: First of all, the book came out just after another one I did on globalization and sport. In each case, I’d been working on the topic for 13 years. So I discovered relief and completion (a bit post-orgasmic!). On the topic itself, I guess I confirmed that my own response to Sportsex is highly ambivalent. I loath the disciplinary sides to sports, the moralistic attitudes, and the history of sexism, racism, homophobia, and nationalistic chauvinism. But I love the beauty and power. And I think that there are some progressive sides to capitalism, when it turns its eager eye on the body.

For centuries, there has been an over-valuation of the gaze of straight men at women, as registered everywhere in our culture. Now, advertisers have discovered a different gaze and they like how it looks. We can’t be sure what the outcome will be, but sports are changed forever.