March 08, 1999 12:00 PM

HBO (Mon., March 8, 10 p.m. ET)

Two of the most fascinating segments in this adulatory yet eye-opening documentary about female athletes involve a couple of Babes. One, of course, was Babe Ruth, who, in a 1931 Yankees exhibition game, got struck out by Jackie Mitchell, a female pitcher for the Chattanooga Lookouts. (Or did he? As one historian points out, some skeptics say it was just a put-on.) The other Babe—who deserves her own documentary—was Babe Didrikson Zaharias, a ’30s superstar in basketball, track and field, and golf (where, even after being stricken by cancer, she won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1954). Most other women, though, had to fight their way out of a sand trap of prejudice: Sports were deemed unfeminine, too strenuous and potentially harmful to reproduction. Not to mention male egos. Kathrine Switzer recalls sneaking into the 1967 Boston Marathon only to be tackled by the race’s irate codirector Jock Semple (who was in turn sidelined by Switzer’s 235-lb. boyfriend). And Billie Jean King exultantly relives her 1973 triumph over tennis court jester Bobby Riggs in their nationally televised Battle of the Sexes. “It wasn’t about tennis,” King insists. “It was about social change.” Yes, and commerce too: ABC sold a lot of ads that day.

But not even a segment on the discrimination Martina Navratilova says she has encountered on Madison Avenue and in the media (though openly gay, she’s critical of the reporters who used to ask her about her sexuality) can dampen the documentary’s upbeat spirit. “Athletic women are the role models of the next millennium,” says narrator Lauren Hutton. If you don’t believe her, just ask Xena.

Bottom Line: Panoramic paean to women athletes

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