Tennis players as birds

Here’s how the chief sports writer for The Times [London] summarized Venus Williams’s victory over Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2007:

The dying swan slunk out in her tutu, savaged to death by a giant bird of prey – a Californian condor, if you like.

The Russian-born Sharapova is over 6 feet tall and blond-haired. Likening her to a swan is certainly reasonable. The Californian-born Venus Williams is also over 6 feet tall and African-American. Likening her to a California condor seems similarly reasonable.

01 Williams & Sharapova

And yet …. I know that the swan, in the popular mind, is associated with beauty and grace (think about that tutu). Despite my deep appreciation of the condor, I know it to be a vulture, surely the kind of birds most likely to be viewed negatively, both for their appearance and lifestyle.

Perhaps I would have been comfortable with the condor analogy if it stood alone, without the contrast with the swan. Or, perhaps if the contrast was made but the condor was replaced with a dark-colored raptor other than a vulture.

Given the sports writer’s statement that a California condor had “savaged to death” a swan, it’s clear that he knew little of condors. He knew they were from California and were large, 2 descriptors that also apply to Venus Williams.

Drawing comparisons between humans and non-human animals is problematic. I find so much to admire about California condors but at the same time I am aware that I carry negative cultural and biological baggage concerning all vultures. The most common response when I show a photo of a condor to someone not familiar with them is a shudder and words such as ugly and gross. Even though my reactions to a condor photo are typically positive, the negative reactions of others stick with me. As to biological baggage, a look at a close-up photo of a vulture feeding on a carcass makes the point. I expect it’s only those with long experience working with real, live vultures who don’t feel something in their throat.

Feel free to liken me to a California condor. But I’ll try to remember to think twice before likening another human to a kind of bird.

Barnes, Simon. Dying swan devoured as giant bird of prey returns to SW19. Times [London]. 5 July 2007.