The Olympics: Eye Candy and Its Discontents

Laurie and Debbie say:

It’s good to be blogging together again.

This month, the Olympics are an inevitable focus for conversations about bodies. We want to make sure you don’t miss Rebecca Solnit’s important take on the topic.

The elegant sinewiness of a sprinter, the coiled power of a diver, has little to do with the abstraction called nationhood, except that the sprinter or diver is being put forward as the public face of his or her nation—or the mask. There are other faces to nationhood. We live in an era where truth is most often found by looking away from the spectacle presented to us.

Sports bring us the human body as a manifestation of nature—not just the elegant forms of athletes, but their animal ability to move through air and water. At the Olympics, these bodies are co-opted by a political culture that wants to be seen as natural, legitimate, stirring, beautiful. Beautiful bodies are just one kind of nature that nations like to claim. After all, this country invented the idea of “national” parks and claims the sublimity of the Grand Canyon (which preceded it by hundreds of millions of years) and all those purple mountains’ majesty as part of its identity. Corporations too like pristine landscapes, particularly for advertisements in which an SUV perches on some remote ledge, or a high-performance car zips along a winding road through landscape splendor…. Of course most of us have become pretty well versed in critiquing advertisements as such—we assume they are coverups if not outright lies. But the Olympics have not been subjected to the same level of critique.

It serves the nations of the world to support the exquisitely trained Olympian bodies, and it often serves their more urgent political and economic agendas to subject other bodies to torture, mutilation, and violent death, as well as to look away from quieter deaths from deprivation and pollution. In the struggles for land and resources—for Chinese control of Tibet, and for the petroleum fields of Sudan and the timber and mineral wealth of Burma—bodies are mowed down like weeds. The celebrated athletic bodies exist in some sort of tension with the bodies that are being treated as worthless and disposable.

We’d go a step past Solnit here, changing her “some sort of tension” into perhaps (to use a very Olympics-common word) “competition.” The beautiful bodies of the Olympics are symbolically nationalized and symbolically corporatized; the spectacle of the Olympics is one of the ways the governments of the world use to say “Everything is all right. Those little things you’re worried about can be ignored. We’re the greatest, we’re the strongest, we’re the fastest, we’re the best; so don’t worry about what else we might be doing. Clearly our cause is righteous.” Corporate advertising says something similar, but not identical: “We can make you almost as beautiful, almost as muscled, almost as successful as these athletes. We can make you dream of being like them, and we can get you damn close to your dream. So don’t worry about what else we might be doing. Clearly, our motives are the best.”

The Olympics have always been about politics and power. The 1936 Berlin Olympics are famous as the “Nazi Olympics”; Hitler used them shamelessly to promote his Aryan-ideal agenda. Solnit discusses the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, where two medal-winning runners gave the black power salute from the podium, and went without shoes to symbolize poverty among African-Americans. In the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, human rights protesters were able to make news by interfering with the torch procession. In other years, the host nation may have been less obviously guilty of misusing its citizens’ bodies, the world may be less aware of torture and neglect in their own countries, but the issues are always there. The goal of the Olympics is always to sweep the ugly (ugly bodies, ugly policies) under the rug.

We all know that nations and corporations lie for their own gain, and will do anything to keep us looking at the spectacle. Beautiful bodies performing astonishing feats are hard to look away from.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s famous story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” is the classic tale of looking where you can’t bear to see. The story posits an extremely happy city whose happiness rests, however, on the intense misery of one imprisoned child, neglected to the point of torture, on display once a year for those citizens who wish to see.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. … They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Thanks to Stefanie for the pointer.

3 thoughts on “The Olympics: Eye Candy and Its Discontents

  1. I think there is another tension, though, that often goes unacknowledged (because it doesn’t serve the propaganda purposes of nations and corporations?) — one of the delights of watching the Olympics is noticing all the different types of bodies that participate. It puts the lie to the notion that there is one perfect body. Many bodies in the Olympics are not what we would generally consider “beautiful” — but they are functional (and then some), and there’s certainly beauty in their performances, even if they will never grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. Also, the athletes who have these unbeautiful but highly functional bodies are so very comfortable in their skin, for the most part.

    My point being that there are subversive body messages embedded in the Olympics, too. They are not highlighted, of course, because they do not serve the powers that be. But they’re definitely, irrepressibly present.

  2. I haven’t been able to watch much Olympic coverage for at least a decade — it’s so sentimentalized, so nationalistic, so downright silly, I can’t stand it. My parents, who are serious track-and-field fans, and who attended both the Mexico City and the Munich games, gave up on the Olympics after 1972. This was partly because of the nationalist politics, but also because the way the games are run is deeply frustrating to fans of a given sport (as opposed to fans of the Olympics). TV coverage is geared toward people who don’t watch sports at any other time, and the assumption seems to be that these people don’t care about the sport so much as the medal count and the interminable triumph-against-adversity human interest stories.

    I think Lori is right that the range of bodies is astonishing, and this gives the lie to the idea that there is such a thing as a perfect body. A gymnast, a shot-putter, a basketball player, a long-distance runner, a swimmer, a wrestler, all athletes at the top of their sport — each approaches perfection *at a given type of activity.* That would be worth watching, if the network would shut up about who’s ahead in the medal count and just cover the games.

  3. I haven’t watched the Olympics for awhile either, but at times I have followed the weight lifting because it’s one of the few sports where the contestants have a similar body type to my own. My joke for a long time was that if I ever wanted to be carried upstairs like Scarlett O’Hara (“No, no,no–yes, yes, yes!”) it would have to be by one of those burly heavyweight lifters–hefted overhead with a “hup! and maybe carried up just a few stairs (wouldn’t want to cause knee damage) before dropping “ooof!” hopefully on a very soft mattress–LOL! (My idea of a positive fat joke, your mileage may vary.)

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