Mark Simpson on how sport and porn got into bed with one another — while D&G and Mr Armani took pictures.…
(Out magazine, May 2006; expanded for The V&A’s ‘Fashion V Sport’ catalogue, June 2008.)
You might think that it was Italy’s greater ball skills, or stamina, or team spirit that won them the 2006 football World Cup. But you would be wrong.
Clearly, explicitly, thrillingly, what won it for the Italians was not so much their sporting spirit as their sporno spirit. In the run-up to the tournament, some especially fit players from the Italian football team took time off from their training and did something much more useful: they recruited Dolce & Gabbana (or was it the other way around?) to produce a spornographic fashion shoot of them all oiled-up and ready for us. In hindsight, we can see that the world was already grovelling at their feet from that moment on.
Sporno, the post-metrosexual aesthetic that sports and advertising are using to sell us the male body is, well, irresistible. Even for a fine French team – who were, let’s face it, a much plainer bunch. First Portugal devastate England because Ronaldo is better looking than Becks and far swoonier than Rooney, then Italy trounce France because the punters would much rather celebrate with the sweaty Italian stallions in the locker-room. The best men definitely won.
In a spornographic age it’s no longer enough for the male body to be presented to us by consumerism as merely attractive, or desiring to be desired, as it was in the early days of nakedly narcissistic male metrosexuality. This masculine coquettish-ness, pleasing as it is, no longer offers an intense enough image. Or provokes enough lust. It’s just not very shocking or arousing any more. In fact, it’s just too… normal. To get our attention these days the sporting male body has to promise us nothing less than an immaculately groomed, waxed and pumped gang-bang in the showers.
But of course, because this is sporno and not actual pornography, it remains just that: a promise. Advertising and fashion are less interested in making a fetish of the potent male body than its underwear: commodity fetishism is usually the name of the sporno game.
However, the homoprovocative nature of sporno is much less easy to overlook than it was in metrosexuality, which could pretend when it wanted to that it was ‘straight’ and something entirely for the ladies. Where metrosexual imagery stole slyly from soft gay porn, sporno blatantly references hard gay porn.
Sometimes you might be forgiven for thinking sport is the new gay porn. Sportsmen are now openly acknowledging and flirting with their gay fans, à la David Beckham and fellow footballer and Calvin Klein underwear model Freddie Ljungberg. Both of these officially heterosexual thoroughbreds have posed for spreads in gay magazines (Ljungberg appeared on the cover of Attitude in April 2006, Beckham in 2002), albeit sporting more clothes than they usually wear when appearing on the side of buses. Beefy England Rugby ace and married father of two Ben Cohen has explicitly marketed a calendar of sexy (PG) pics of himself at gay men, and talks of ‘embracing his gay fans’. Some, like Becks and smoothly-muscled Welsh Rugby ace Gavin Henson have even argued over them (Becks recently admitted that Henson had stolen a lot of his gay fans and he wanted them back because ‘I miss them.’).
Being found desirable by gay men, once a source of ridicule by others and often violent anger from the desired, now seems to mean you are worthy not just of love but also of large amounts of cash. A whole new generation of young bucks, from twinky soccer players such as Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who has modelled for Pepe, and Chelsea’s Fabulous Frankie ‘Legs’ Lampard, to rougher prospects such as Joe Cole and A.C. Milan’s Kakà posing for Samsung and Armani jeans respectively, and the naked, pneumatic rugby ‘pros’ of the legendary Dieux du Stade calendars, seems to be actively pursuing Beckham’s and Ljungberg’s male sex-object, more than slightly tarty, status. The sportsman as erotic symbol.
Being equal opportunity flirts, today’s sporno stars want to turn everyone on. Partly because sportsmen, like porn stars, are by definition show-offs, but more particularly because it means more money, more power, more endorsements, more kudos. Sporno exploits the corporate showbiz direction that sport is moving in, as well as the undifferentiated nature of desire in a media-saturated, mirrored-ceiling world – and inflates their career portfolio to gargantuan proportions.
Why is Euro soccer star Beckham a household name in the United States, a country that generally has less interest in soccer than socialism? Why did his recent move to the US to play for a team most Americans had never hear of provoke so much breathless coverage in the US media? Again, it wasn’t down to his soccer skills, but rather his sporno skills. Pictures of him semi-naked in Vanity Fair, or in W magazine, sporting skin-tight trousers that nevertheless seem to be somehow pulling themselves off, or that naked campaign for Motorola, in which the mobile phone dangles tantalizingly between his pert nipples, seem to be more ubiquitous, not to mention more stirring, than images of him actually playing football.
And what could be more American? Sporno stars are pushy young hustlers who are happy to be ogled undressed on Times Square billboards or in Vanity Fair – advertising a willingness to put out, or at least get it out, to get ahead. In campaigns like Ljungberg’s Calvin Klein unforgettable underwear posters of 2006 or Beckham’s globally gawked Armani briefs ads of 2008, their bodies and their bulges, blown up to gigantic proportions, are rammed down our throats by advertising. Most of us don’t appear to be gagging, however.
The male body has been well and truly, not to mention tastily, commodified. After decades of being fetishized by gay men, jocks are now fetishizing themselves. It was probably inevitable. Men are traditionally the more visual of the sexes – and by far the greatest consumers of porn. So why not cut out the middle-women and pornolize yourself? Because of the fantastical masculine potency of sporno millions of boys and men around the world are excitedly buying clothes and underwear worn or endorsed by their hero. And how could a guy, any guy, not have their head turned by a sporno star? Sporno stars have everything a man could want today: youth, vigour, money, fame, looks, equally beautiful bosom buddies, glamorous partners – and the numbers for top photographers and stylists.
The people who essentially invented sport, the Ancient Greeks, certainly thought the male athlete the greatest head-turner. For them, sport was an opportunity to worship and admire the beauty of the youthful male form, which in turn represented the freedom of the human spirit. They thought it natural that men would find the youthful athletic male form inspiring and desirable, and an essential part of the pleasure of sport. Most sports competitions, including the original Olympics, were conducted naked: clothes spoiled the experience, for athlete and spectator. Much of their muscular art was a classical antecedent of today’s sporno.
Admittedly though, many Greeks would probably have been scandalized by the keenness of today’s golden young athletes to pose for images designed to inflame lust – and cash purchases. Plato for one would certainly have been aghast at the neo-classical shamelessness of Dieux du Stade (‘Gods of the Stadium’). The phenomenally successful, luxurious calendars feature the Paris-based Stade Français rugby team and various well-endowed sporting guest stars from around the world re-enacting, you may be forgiven for thinking, the plot of every sports-themed gay porn vid. (Fashion photographers rather than pornographers take the pictures: Dolce & Gabbana favourite Mariano Vivanco was responsible for the particularly striking 2007 images.) Shot in musty locker rooms, the naked, pumped and tweezed ‘gods’, often in full body make-up, clutch strategically placed rugby balls like fat leather erections and gaze longingly into the camera, or into each other’s eyes.
Such brazen behaviour has only enhanced the careers of these rugger buggers. Frédérik Michalak and his hypnotically tattooed and geodesmic butt’s starring role in an early DVD showing the making of the Dieux du Stade calendar, has helped land him modelling contracts for Christian Lacroix, a French condom line endorsement deal, as well as becoming the expensive face of Biotherm Homme and the sporting package for a skimpy underwear line.
No doubt the Greeks would have been shocked even more by the way that women are openly enjoying these homoprovocative images too. In fact, the Dieux du Stade calendars were originally part of a marketing plan to update and widen the appeal of French rugby, particularly for women, and have proved massively popular: the 2007 calendar reportedly sold 200,000 copies. But the sporno-graphic eye of Dieux du Stade is quite deliberately, quite flagrantly un-straight. Partly because some of today’s women are being turned on to the voyeuristic charms of male-on-male action (in an echo perhaps of their boyfriends’ interest in female-on-female action), partly because it gets attention – ‘whatarethoseguysdoing!’, and partly because, as we’ve seen, the adoration of gay men is the key to the successful marketing of the male body. But mostly because this all-male exhibitionism, whomever it’s directed toward, gay, straight or bi, female or male, is so charmingly, submissively keen to please. Especially from guys who live through action and the urge to dominate.
Check out the DDS ‘Making Of the 2004 Calendar’ DVD, or the ‘Making of’ DVD from any year really, and see them obediently adopting the gay porno poses requested of them by the photographer, head placed on buddy’s shoulders, or head at buddy’s waist, hands on his perfectly formed buttocks.
The uninhibitedness of the rugby players, in part a function of the physical intimacy of the game itself, ends up being deliciously suited to the visual uninhibitedness of our times. How things – or rather, thighs – have changed. In the United Kingdom rugby traditionally was the sport of hairy beer monsters with nowhere else to go on a Saturday. But with professionalization, players, particularly the more streamlined backs, have become younger, fitter, and self-consciously sexier and their dance-cards are as full as their biceps. Blond, buffed, green-eyed, square-jawed, England International player Josh Lewsey, has been deployed to interest rugby fans in bulging lycra. A giant, god-like blow-up ‘bronze’ statue of him in his shorts was erected outside Twickenham rugby stadium in 2006 by his sponsor Nike. Rugby fans queuing for their tickets had the distracting pleasure of gazing up between Josh’s towering, flared thighs and at his ‘divine’ abs and pecs bursting out of a skin-tight Nike top.
Meanwhile the England rugby strip itself has been given something of a Queer Eye makeover. Banished forever are their baggy, shapeless beer-towel rugby shirts, replaced by a form-hugging strip that might well have been designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Understandably, England’s new sporno kit dazzled the opposition: in 2003, the year the team debuted it, England won the Rugby World Cup for the first time ever. The latest version of it, introduced for the 2007 World Cup, saw them achieve second place despite being written off beforehand by pundits.
No doubt this astonishing turnaround was down to their new strip being being even tighter than before and including a saucy red arrow/swoosh from armpit to the edge of the opposite thigh, reportedly designed to confuse opposing players. Too right – they won’t know whether to tackle them or kiss them. A confusion that seemed to be exploited, albeit unwittingly, by the ‘C’est so Paris’ humorous advertising campaign promoting the 2007 World Cup, which featured snogging scrumming rugby players and the jokey tagline ‘Paris: City of Love’ (the only far-fetched aspect of the campaign was the unattractiveness of the ad’s faux rugby players compared to the ‘real’ Dieux du Stade thing).
In the more moneyed world of football, which has been a much bigger business for much longer, the eye-catching potency of a sporno star seems to have disorientated even the tough no-nonsense guys who manage football clubs – until you look at the bottom line. Despite somewhat inconsistent performances on the pitch, David Beckham is the world’s biggest-earning soccer player and the best known – because of his off-pitch pouting (most recently confirmed by his 2007 £20 million Armani underwear deal). His purchase in 2003 by Spain’s Real Madrid made them the most profitable soccer club in the world – replacing Manchester United: Beckham’s previous club. Beckham is an object of global desire, and his merchandise moves even faster than his hips – his body is worth more on billboards than on the pitch. After making what was billed as the biggest sports deal in history at £128 million, American team LA Galaxy is his new sporno studio, and he their Number One box cover star.
There is, however, another way in which British soccer players are finding themselves and their athletic prowess paraded on the front pages. A slew of kiss-and-tell articles have appeared in the tabloids in recent years about the penchant our young sportsmen have for sharing a young female groupie with several other team mates. Simultaneously. Often videoing the proceedings. Sporting gods in naked, adult video action with other sporting gods. No wonder the tabs and the public got so excited. In recreating the more than slightly homoerotic straight ‘gang-bang’ porn that they, like many other young men today are downloading from the Net, footballers are, wittingly or not, realizing the fantasy underpinning sporno itself.
Things reached their logical, if slightly Footballers Wives conclusion – their spornographic money shot – in 2006 when lurid stories were ‘splashed’ across the tabloids about a ‘secretly shot film’ allegedly showing several globally famous (but unnamed) English soccer stars engaging in a ‘gay sex orgy’, in which expensive limited edition mobile phones were supposedly used as ‘sex toys’. Regardless of the fact or feverish fantasy of this story, no one seemed to be able to get enough of it. Except perhaps the footballers themselves – who were not only not making any money out of this particular sporno spin-off, but also faced the threat of losing earning potential as a result of the scandal (British libel laws however quickly came to the rescue providing at least one player with a large, undisclosed sum). The response of many fans on the terrace in the form of vicious anti-gay taunts and the continued absence of any openly gay professional footballers, suggest that casual homophobia is as rampant in the culture as sporno itself – which is more than slightly ironic.
A generation of men may be entranced by images of glamorous, sporting males who so clearly, achingly, desire to be desired by all and sundry, but it seems the explicitly homoerotic implications of that still give quite a few of them the willies, especially in the highly-strung world of football. Though this is perhaps merely a time-lag issue: attitudes take longer to change than underwear.
Sporno stars themselves, moving in their celebrity circles, probably don’t care two hoots whether a fellow player likes bedroom partners with the same-shaped tackle, and may even be as pansexual as their advertising and fashion tastes portrays them, but they worry very much about what their fans will think. After all, this is show business, darling, and you can’t afford to alienate your audience – or, paradoxically, those homoerotic spornographic endorsement deals. While the statements of gay-friendly soccer stars such as Beckham and Ljungberg (and Cohen and Henson in rugby) have been sincere, thus far, actual homosex, or even bisex, rather than the faux variety proffered by advertising appears to still be beyond the pale. Sporno stars may pose gay but until now all of them have had to be officially totally heterosexual – as do all pro footballers and, with one or two exceptions, all rugby players.
Perhaps this is also the reason today’s soccer stars, who appear, way ‘gayer’ than their predecessors – according to The Sun, Manchester United’s locker rooms have recently had to be modified to make room for players’ ‘manbags’, because ‘they use more cosmetics than their wives’ – no longer kiss one another passionately after a goal is scored as they did just a few years ago. They have to maintain the impression, like many gay porn stars, that they’re only gay for pay.
As for the paymasters themselves, the fashion brands, while they certainly wish to continue changing mainstream masculine attitudes towards clothes and the male body, it could be argued that a certain amount of homophobia works to their benefit here: making sporno advertising more arresting, more powerful – and also helping to displace any homoerotic feelings/anxiety they provoke into commodity fetishism: buying the product instead of trying the fantasy it’s wrapped in. ‘Of course I don’t want the athlete’s desirable looks/face/body/packet’, the hetero male viewer/voyeur of sporno perhaps says to themselves – ‘I want his pants’.
Nevertheless, these are interesting if somewhat conflicted times. We shouldn’t underestimate how far we’ve come and how dramatically traditional male past-times such as football and rugby have changed in the last decade as a result of their collision with the worlds of fashion, celebrity and consumerism. Sporting male heroes have enthusiastically taken up shockingly exhibitionistic sex-object poses in the global media that once were anathema for most men because they were seen as ‘girly’, ‘slutty’ or ‘homo’. Or, what was much the same emasculating taboo in the male mind: passive. Sports starts have become sporno stars – playing enthusiastic power bottoms to the public’s imagination. Stripping off, lying back, and thinking of England… lusting over them.
Unsurprisingly, this flagrant passivity represents a taboo too far for some. As one outraged middle-aged male (and, it probably needs to be said, somewhat plump and plain) BBC sports presenter thundered recently in a popular British tabloid about Beck’s Armani lunch-box ad: ‘You’ve got money, status, respect and fame – then someone says: “Armani want you to do a picture wearing tight white pants with your legs as wide open as the hole in England’s defence.” Why would you say yes?’
Actually, in a spornographic age, the question should rather be: Why on Earth would you say no?
© Mark Simpson 2010
This essay is included in Simpson’s latest collection: Metrosexy: a 21st Century Self-Love Story
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