Cover me in Lycra, put me on the pitch, and - hey presto

David Aaronovitch on sex, sport and the hard sell

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YOU MIGHT mistake it for a Lolita ad. The teenage girl lies on her front, wearing a slinky black off-the-shoulder number, her eyes looking directly at you, and just the hint of a half-lascivious, half-scornful smile on her cherry red lips. "8.30 pm," runs the accompanying text, "my place".

Mmmm. We all know what is being promised here, don't we? And it sure as hell ain't a game of hockey. Except, of course, that a game of hockey is exactly what is on offer. The girl is 18 year old England hockey international, Lucilla Wright, her "place" is a stadium in Milton Keynes, and the ad goes on (in small letters) to give details of how to obtain tickets.

It has, however, as you might expect, caused some discussion within the English Hockey Association. The EHA president, Mrs Monica Pickersgill, was initially opposed to its appearing in a local magazine, but has subsequently been talked round. Not least by a Mr Ian Thomas, the EHA's marketing director, who revealed that England's Aussie opponents in the match (the imaginatively titled "Hockey-roos") will take to the field dressed, not in pleated skirt and aertex polo-necks, but in "all-in-one Lycra kit".

Lycra is, of course, the material that saved cycling as a spectator sport, and made men's athletics a must-watch for today's woman. On a shapely and vigorous person its adaptation to the most intimate contours of the body provides a focus for spectator attention whenever the sporting action flags. Or even when it doesn't. Lycra, as we know, follows each undulation, drops into the smallest indentation, emphasises every teeny pucker, and moulds itself around the firm semi-circle of ... Whoah! That's quite enough of that. What do you think this is, Playboy? Loaded? Hockey Monthly? Get a grip!

If cycling and sprinting have been succoured by sex, so has soccer. Ginola of the petulant lips and flowing locks has become a pin-up, as has David Beckham, he of the impossible combination of DiCaprio features and vigorous, lusty thighs. He could sire forty healthy children for you, and still look like your own son.

But some sports have an easier job than others when it comes to selling sensuality. The problem for hockey is that it is associated with tree- trunk thighs, hefty gym mistresses, painful (and, for most people, necessarily unsexual) blows to the knees and ankles, bullying-off, loud shouts of "ovah heah Madge!" and women called Mrs Pickersgill.

Nevertheless that co-option of implied naughtiness is exactly what young Lucilla is after. With the brutal truthfulness of your average 18-year- old she states that her aim is to show that "normal, sexy, boy-interested girls play hockey, and you don't have to look like a horse." Lucilla's photograph, by the way, shows a most unequine set of features.

This is all very hard on the generations of women who have been horsey looking, abnormal, lesbian (or simply uninterested in boys), or whose looks have not been what social convention has declared to be "sexy" - and who have generally been the bedrock of English hockey. As an unconventionally sexy person myself - whose appearance in all-in-one Lycra would certainly stop any contest dead - I feel for them. Besides, perhaps Lucilla is too young to know this, but there are plenty of men (and not a few women) who are rather attracted to lesbians.

Well then, here it comes, the question that you all knew I was bound to ask. Which is, naturally, where will it end? Is there any sport or activity that cannot be sold on the basis of the opportunity to watch fine young bodies disport themselves around in a fine pheremonal mist? And is there any limit to how sports will exploit the sex appeal of competitors?

It might be hard, for instance, to stoke up smouldering passions about the leading practitioners of the sport of darts. Dressing the Jocky Wilsons in skin-tight gear is not going to help, for - paradoxically - the larger the undulation, the less the desire to encounter it in detail. And besides, they wouldn't have anywhere to put their Woodbines.

The Winter Olympics proved that curling has a similar rebranding problem (although sledging, with all that lying down and hurtling round corners, doesn't). Will the British Curling Association sanction naked men or women sitting astride those flat sliding things (or stones, as they are known), as they slip slowly - oh, so slowly - over the cold ice? I think not.

Mind you, at the '96 Olympic Games, Belorussian gymnast Svetlana Boginskaya was nicknamed "the minx from Minsk" for her interesting floor exercise, as she writhed and wriggled in an apparent ecstasy of something or other. Any sport that includes music and routines is ripe for exploitation.

My own choices for a successful revamp would be Dressage and Showjumping. Horseyness might be thought to look unglamorous on a hockey player, but it looks pretty good on a horse. Place upon the back of that magnificent animal a young woman, clad only in knee length black leather boots and strategically placed ringlets, and then allow her to brandish a riding crop and a snarl, and I think you have a sport that one might just go to Milton Keynes for.

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