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Meg Charlton Headshot

The Frenzy Over Male Olympians

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The New York Times, in its much-discussed piece on Lolo Jones, states, in nearly the same sentence, that "no one is complaining that Ryan Lochte is athletic eye candy," while Jones' objectification is "a sad commentary on the industry."

The contrast of Lochte's sex appeal versus Lolo's feels somewhat manufactured. That there is a double standard for women and their sexuality is a point both too obvious and too vast to be explored here. But to focus on that old familiar story, as the New York Times does, is also to somewhat miss the point. What is interesting about Lochte is not that we find him attractive, but how we find him attractive.

Ryan Lochte was sold to us as "a free spirit" -- which is apparently what you call hot people who own lots of sneakers -- and transformed into "America's sexiest douchebag," a title he decisively clinched by admitting he peed in the aquatic center pool. Contrast that with Nathan Adrian's emergence as America's leading Olympic boyfriend. It was not born of any sponsorships or anchors or pre-cut NBC packages. It was created by the viewers: A smart, nice guy did something incredible while shirtless and that was evidently enough to make him the Olympian we all most want to take home to our families.

But regardless of our fairly uninformed opinions of their personalities, hetero female viewers have latched onto the male Olympians this year in a way that feels unprecedented. After the close-out of the aquatic events, the farm system of Olympic crushes, and gain some perspective, it is hard to think of another major sporting event that has even come close to eliciting this degree of gleeful sexual energy, from either men or women.

Female-oriented sites have taken notice: Refinery29, Go Fug Yourself, NY Mag's The Cut, Jezebel (birthplace of Lochte as douchebag) and others have all helped fuel our libidos during the Olympics. According to NBC, more teenage girls have watched the Olympics so far than bought a ticket to Twilight: Eclipse, which might say more about how NBC perceives teenage girls than anything else but is still a noteworthy statistic. But this is not an ultimately, top-down phenomenon. Partially, the rise of social media can be blamed (or thanked, depending on your point of view). We no longer need a mediator to decide how we should perceive Tom Daley -- we can read his twitter feed for ourselves or watch countless unsanctioned gifs of his barely covered ass. Our lust, in other words, has grassroots.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, reporters such as NBC correspondent John McEnroe, continue to trot out leading questions for Misty May Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings about their skimpy uniforms. But that alleged controversy seems to faze neither our beach volleyball heroines nor our male viewers. There are cheerleaders at many London 2012 events much more scantily clad than any of the players. And besides, men are not so desperate to make Kerri Walsh Jennings a sex object just for wearing a bikini when society has already given them Kate Upton.

But women aren't given their own Kate Uptons, so we have to make them. As tired as it is to talk about 50 Shades Of Grey, it is important to remember that it was born out of fan fiction. The culture at large was missing something a woman wanted, so she took what was available and made it work for her. Whatever you think of soft-core BDSM novels, that is the tradition you are upholding when you generate Hey Girl memes of Nathan Adrian.

This might not seem that revolutionary, but consider this: During the 1968 winter games, my mother had a crush on the skier Jean-Claude Killy and, whenever the Olympics roll around, she tells me the same story: She was poring over the issue of Life that featured him when my nana knocked on her bedroom door and my mother responded by shoving the magazine under her mattress, like a smuggled Playgirl. In 1972, she remembers the photo of a Speedo'ed Mark Spitz, hung with gold medals, caused a mildly titillating stir.

Cut to 40 years later and Mark Spitz's photo shoot cannot touch the boy band-level frenzy over the male swimmers and divers in London. The online, user-generated discussion of male Olympians has been joyfully raunchy, free of shame or stigma. You need only read the intro to a near-pornographic slideshow of Tom Daley's post-dive shower to recognize that there is a teasing, playful element to all of this. Perhaps it's a bit strange to mention your mother in the same breath as near-pornographic, but in this instance I think she would approve. I think she must be relieved for us that we no longer want or need to hide our proverbial Life magazines under the bed.