Recently I came across an interesting think piece on climbing website Evening Sends which raised the question of whether one particular female climber was in fact a climber or a model. The climber-model in question is Sierra Blair-Coyle, who has 30,500 followers on Instagram, 202,000+ people who like her Facebook page and which the article describes as “She’s totally hot. In her photos of herself, which she posts each day to her popular social-media outlets, she is usually smiling and happy, wearing a cute outfit and often doing something that vaguely resembles real rock climbing.”
The author goes on to ponder whether we’ve made it to the era of the Athlete Model, where the value of some professional outdoor athletes is based more on appearance and image than it is in the substance their achievements and athletes.
Their value seems to be one-part their looks (in which they must be meet sufficient aesthetic qualities, i.e. be hot) and one-part their relatability. “The Athlete Model, then, is the avatar for this happy lifestyle. They are an idol who we like, literally, because they can consistently generate a compelling visual story of themselves leading a fun, active, healthy, carefree lifestyle. All of which is only relevant to us because that lifestyle is vaguely related to that sport that we share with our Athlete Model idols.”
The rise of the Athlete Model has become a legitimate route for some people to become professional athletes as brands and sponsors often want to align themselves with such striking individuals…and their legions of followers. Not only does becoming a professional athlete just require someone to put in the hard graft to become the best at their chosen sport, but there is a potential that some – totally hot individuals – can just look good doing something which vaguely resembles the sport they like doing and be, arguably, more proficient at piloting their smartphone than they are at their sport.
“I can only assume that when it comes to choosing representatives/ambassadors, all companies look beyond a climber’s resume and/or skin-deep beauty. I assume companies ultimately seek out individuals who are very talented, very likable, very good-looking and, on top of all that, have a large following on social media.”
And that’s the point, this wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for social media, because we created their popularity by “Following” and “Liking” their feeds.
The article, which I urge you to read before you finish reading this (that’s it, off you go. Now. Go read that other thing and remember to click Back or return to this tab if you really have nothing better to do or your boss is out of the office), is very balanced and asks as many questions of ourselves and modernity as it does about the validity and value of someone like Sierra Blair-Coyle. But the whole time I was reading it I felt like I knew exactly what the author was talking about even though I’d never heard of this particular Athlete Model or knew much about the world of celebrity climbers. Being pretty and lovely and willing to post pictures of your own tight buns on Instagram isn’t just a climbing problem. Of course, surfers regularly question whether the top paid female surfers are the best because of the scores they get at competition or their ability to look bloody fantastic in a bikini. And in mountain biking…well, perhaps you know of one or two Athlete Models. Perhaps you Follow and Like them already. Perhaps you like seeing the pictures of them looking cute or handsome in photos posted from all the riding destinations you’ve always wanted to visit yourself.
There always has been some professional mountain bikers who were famous and successful because of their ability to look good in mountain bike clothes, or photographed draped over a mountain bike, or occasionally ride around a corner with elbows and hips stuck out just right…ish. These riders weren’t the fastest or the best, but they looked the part and they played the game because we needed to be given the image of attractive person able to ride a bike competently.
These days it still persists, often at the expense of other female athletes. Generally speaking, the ones that really are quite good at riding their bike are the ones least likely to project an image of themselves as objects of desire, and instead are trying to present an image of womanhood that goes beyond the worth of their body and transcends the cliches occasionally present in some interpretations of feminism and feminity. However, when there’s only so much dollar to go around then who is more valuable? The smiling girl in the bikini posting selfies or the racer who was placing fifth? That’s not my place to decide because the metrics clearly are in favor of one over the other: 500 Likes is better than a fifth.
Sure, the Athlete Models are just putting out what a lot of people want to see because a lot of the viewers are male (particularly in regards to mountain biking) and therefore programmed to respond tight buns, low tops and lots of well tanned legs. Being “hot” and talented aren’t two contrary assets to a mountain biker but when the former is used to mask the deficiencies of the latter then perhaps there is a problem. Will athletic ability be considered less valuable, less worthwhile, and less impressive than having high levels of engagement on Facebook Or has that already happened?
We are in a new age and the visibility that has always been required of professional athletes has a range of new mediums. A professional athlete has always been an ambassador and billboard, the sponsoring company tying themselves to the credibility and value of the performances and character of that athlete.
With the advent of social media, cameras in our palms and a magical constant connection to the Skynet has come the age of self-advertising the ideal image of ourselves and self-editorializing the content we choose to receive. Now it is our own choice how we create and then curate the flow of images towards us, and how we forge the image, or brand, of ourselves. We are all our own Publisher, Editor, Photographer and Reporter. We choose what goes up and when it goes up, which is why social network feeds full of selfies, pursed lips and skin on show is no longer seen as vanity and narcissism but instead is seen as absolutely normal behavior.
And please don’t just think I’m being a misogynistic bastard who is berating women for flashing skin while I simultaneously fed my male libido on the same images, I just wish to pause to question the true validity of thin and disposable product such as #selfies and #sponsorshoutouts. There’s a number of male athletes who have also successfully harassed social media to accelerate or perpetuate their career trajectory. But that’s the nature of the modern condition, to be able to present an image of ourselves to the world as bigger, better, smarter, funnier, bolder and more beautiful than we are. There’s some skill in doing it well so perhaps it’s best to hate the game and not the player. However, some “riders”, much more disappointingly, have utilized programs and Bots that help bolster the number of Likes and Followers on their feeds, thus making them appear far more popular and therefore more valuable in the eyes of sponsors and supporters. Such actions surely devalue the worth of measuring such metrics? Well, to the wise and careful it does. 500 Likes from 500 teenage girls in Bulgaria isn’t worth that much to a North American boutique bike brand so any ‘reach’ or ‘engagement’ that is being claimed is about as honest as a nine dollar bill. It’s obvious that the digital realm is an necessary means for athletes to provide value for their sponsors but I’m not sure that the ROI is always A-OK IMO.
Athlete Models, there’s not always been a lot of them and neither am I suggesting that there’s a tidal wave of good looking, social media automatons ruling the roost. Perhaps even to talk about this is to overstate the extent to which it’s happening, but the extent to which we allow this damp to creep into the joints now will determine the rot of the future. But what is the value of a Like? Riders like Wade Simmons refuse to become social media caricatures but has that devalued him or does it bolster his status as someone that’s worth listening to his (few) words and following his actions?