You have to admire Laura Trott, a double Olympic gold medallist and two-time European champion cyclist, and her refusal to be sexualised by a branch of the media that can’t see past her doe-eyed prettiness and blond plaits.
The 21-year-old this week revealed – although that is probably the wrong word – she had snubbed an invitation to the awards ceremony for FHM’s Sexiest Women in the World after being voted No 42. Describing it as a “no-go” area, she confessed to feeling “pressure to fulfil a certain image” but suggested she wouldn’t demean herself and her achievements in order to raise her profile.
Contrast Trott’s stance to that of her Great Britain track cycling predecessors Rebecca Romero and Victoria Pendleton. Romero, you will recall, posed naked on her bike for a Powerade billboard campaign ahead of the Beijing Games, where she went on to become the first British woman to win Olympic medals in two different sports (a silver in the quadruple sculls in 2004 and a gold in the individual pursuit in 2008).
Pendleton has never been shy of taking her clothes off. Ever since she posed naked for the cover of Observer Sports Monthly ahead of Beijing and, broadening her popularity with lads everywhere, slipped into black lingerie for the cover of FHM magazine in 2009, Pendleton has made it her business to sell herself as a beautiful woman with a determination bordering on mania.
Ahead of London 2012, she shed the clothes once more for an “artistic” photo shoot for GQ magazine and again for the cover of Esquire magazine. Her commitment to the naturist cause, a succession of knock-out red carpet appearances and a sashay in Strictly Come Dancing duly saw her named the sexiest woman in sport by FHM at its 2013 awards (incidentally that is No 39 in the list of 100).
This approach to self-promotion is clearly not for Trott, who prefers to cuddle up on the sofa with track cyclist boyfriend Jason Kenny in their Stockport home. It is hard to tell whether her comments contained a subtle dig at her peers who do choose to flaunt their assets, but she was clear that it is not the way for her. Fair enough. But it doesn’t make the path trodden by Pendleton and Romero less righteous.
Pendleton – less so Romero as she looked distinctly out of her comfort zone – is quite at ease as an object of men’s desires. She courts the attention. But playing up her sensuality did not make her any less of a supreme sprint cyclist. She has the gold medals to prove it. She also did more than any other British rider besides Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins to bring cycling into the mainstream.
There is an obvious hypocrisy in the moral debate about whether a female athlete’s sporting achievements should speak for themselves. Relative perhaps to the number of male editors, a disproportionate amount of space is given to images of naked women.
Romero might have been the talking point in 2008 but there were two male athletes, Phillips Idowu, the triple-jumper, and Gregor Tait, the swimmer, who were just as naked as she was. Very little, however, was said about what motivated them to do it or whether it cheapened their sport.
There was little criticism of Ben Cohen, the former England rugby player, for his faintly ridiculous topless paso doble on Strictly last weekend that appeared to be part of a blatant pitch for the pink pound. Obviously, the four judges (a straight man, two gay men, one woman) were sold on his physical charms as he secured his highest score on the show to date.
Ever since the Ancient Games in Olympia, where male athletes competed naked to show off toned bodies hewn in the image of Zeus, sex and sport has proved a successful combination. It reflects an instinctive celebration of aesthetic beauty. And there is nothing wrong with that.
What is wrong, though – and where Trott is right to stand her ground – is when women are coerced into revealing more than they want to. That is exploitation.
If a female athlete feels compelled to take her clothes off for a sponsor or the commercial opportunity will simply not exist, that is indefensible.
Clearly, we’d all like a world where women’s successes in sport were just as high-profile as their male counterparts’. But it is hard to argue against freedom of choice. David Beckham sold himself to the world in a pair of tight underpants but no one would call him oppressed. There are many more talented footballers but few more famous.
Trott will undoubtedly inspire girls in Britain to ride bikes but she will not make as much money doing it as Pendleton. Principles don’t sell magazines.
Still, I hope she sticks to hers. Sport needs its innocents. The worst thing, now we know her boundaries, would be to watch them torn down by commercial pressures.