I don't doubt for a moment that stressing athleticism is meant to address the myth that ballet dancers are either effeminate gay men (or, occasionally, effeminate straight men, unless their love life is the stuff of straight male fantasy) or are delicate female creatures to be put on pedestals, worshiped, and moved around the stage by a man, and never, ever lesbians. Look at sports: it's not as if Rudy Galindo being out has inspired many male figure skaters to be out publicly or Greg Louganis' book and coming out has inspired many divers to come out, let alone many athletes who compete in professional team sports or tennis players and golfers who are after those big endorsement contracts.
Edward Villella's plaited muscles graced the cover of a national magazine to show that the former boxer was an athlete, but that wasn't even in classical ballet: it was in "Prodigal Son." Yet it countered the image, just as the Novice in "The Cage" and the women in "A Million Kisses to My Skin" belie the helpless female stereotype that causes many feminists to throw out the classical baby with the bathwater. The incentives are there to say, "We're athletic!" "We'll jump across the stage and wow you with our power!" "We're Americans and don't need all those crowns and all that hierarchy!"
But in between ballet dancer = sport there are two different things. The first is ballet dancers are as trained, strong, fierce, and fearless as any athletes out there, and that what they do could fell professional athletes in other sports. That is asking for respect for what it takes physically and mentally to make great physical feats look effortless. I suspect that many would do cartwheels at the 85% statistic.
The second is ballet competitions. There are several kinds of them, just like in opera. Some are scholarship competitions. Some are looking for potential rather than finished product. Some are looking for who is the best dancer, no matter how that is defined, on those competition days. (That doesn't mean that there isn't scouting among the judges or audience for their own companies in which they are looking for specific types of dancers [height, style, partnering skill] who may or may not be unfinished, but that's not always part of the formal competition.) It's easy to confuse competition with sport, since there are winners and losers -- no matter what the criteria, someone is holding the trophy/plaque/check at the end -- not just audience that's seen "Swan Lake," even if that competition were strictly interpretive and not overtly technical.
I think the steps between, which are distinct things, get conflated into the dance=sport argument, and it's unclear how those 85% are thinking of sport and dance.
Wonderful article, Alexandra!