Warning: Sports Stars May Be Hazardous to Your Health

Article excerpt

Sports celebrate health. Cigarettes cause death. So what's that Marlboro sign doing at Shea Stadium?

In case you missed it, this year's press guide to the Women's International Tennis Association is an impressive volume. Its 456 glossy pages bear tribute to what the guide immodestly calls "one of the greatest success stories of the modem sports world"-how women's tennis stepped from obscurity into the limelight of the Virginia Slims circuit, where this year players will compete for more than $17 million in prize money. Just twenty years ago, the nation's best women tennis players languished before small crowds on high school courts. Now, the guide says, with their own massage therapists and "state-of-theart forecasting system," they've become "synonymous with style." They're synonymous with wealth, too: Chris Evert's $8.6 million in lifetime earnings places her a distant second to Martina Navratilova's $14 million. But most of all, they're synonymous with fine physical form. Sprinkled throughout the media guide are photos of athletes in peak physical condition: Manuela Maleeva bends "low for a forehand volley," "Hana Mandlikova intently awaits a return," "Gabriela Sabatini puts to use her smashing' backhand."

Those of us less physically gifted than Hana Mandlikova can't help but envy the strength in her legs, power in her arms, and stamina in her lungs as

she pauses, racket poised, before exploding into her backhand. It's precisely the rareness of these qualities that brings us to admire her so, and to pause a moment when looking at her picture. Because as Hana Mandlikova intently awaits a return, she does so in front of a big sign that says "Virginia Slims"-a product not known for promoting the powers of heart and lung that lie at the center of her trade. In fact, throughout the guide-not to mention the nation's sports pages and television broadcasts-we find these stars showeasing their enviable talents in front of cigarette ads. The bold corporate logo of the Virginia Slims series emphasizes the bond: a woman, sassy and sleek, holds a racket in one hand and a cigarette in the other. This is odd. Tennis champions, after all, are models of health, particularly the health of heart and lungs, where endurance is essential. And cigarette smoking, as the Surgeon General recently reminded, "is the chief avoidable cause of death

in our society"-death, more precisely, from heart and lung disease.

Struck by this seeming contradiction, I called Renee Bloch Shallouf, whom the guide lists as Media Services Manager for the players union, and asked if she, too, was impressed with the incongruity. "I think I'll defer this one over to Virginia Slims," she said. "They're the sponsor. We're just the players union. All I can do is give you a personal opinion."

"What is your personal opinion?" "Noo-hoooo," she said, keeping the answer to herself.

Shallouf ended the conversation by saying, "If I find somebody opinionated-someone willing to give their opinion-around here, I'll call you." Turning back to the media guide, I flipped to the section marked "Virginia Slims Personnel," and, to my surprise, found a familiar face on the page. There, bearing the impressive title of "Director, Worldwide Operations," was Anne Person, a college classmate of mine. Perhaps she would have some thoughts on the compatibility of tennis and tobacco. But, though she answers a phone at Philip Morris headquarters, she said she was only a "consultant" and that she worked "only on the tennis end." As for her thoughts about tobacco, she said, "I just can't do it. I don't choose to do it. . . . Regarding the tobacco issue, I don't choose to share my opinions." She suggested I call Steve Weiss, the manager of media relations for Philip Morris, U.S.A. When I did, Weiss sounded astonished. He said he found the question-is there a contradiction between the vigor of athletics and the disease caused by cigarettes? …