/ 10 August 2012

Ogling is an Olympic sport

Helloooo gentlemen: American swimmers Conor Dwyer
Helloooo gentlemen: American swimmers Conor Dwyer

'Look at this … what a beautiful boy … Sorry .…" The father of Chad le Clos, talking to the BBC, was overwhelmed. "Is this live?" he asked. "Yes," the interviewers said cheerfully. It was not as if he had sworn. The proud South African was just overwhelmed. Before he had even considered the fact that his son had beaten Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympian of all time, in the 200m butterfly race, he was baffled, brought to the very edge of comprehension by his own son's beauty.

To a greater or lesser degree, it is how we all feel. For these weeks only, watching these near-deities for whom every muscle has a purpose and every tweak of a body hair is a bid for greatness, we are allowed to make remarks we would not usually make. We are allowed to gawp at perfection, marvel at beauty, openly wish we could prod chests and have a try at the triceps.

It is the Olympic Gaze, an objectification amnesty. You want to compare the swimming to a gay porn film? Be our guest. You want to rank the athletes in order of doability? You are welcome.

The author of the Hotlympics: The Hunks of London 2012 website writes frankly in a caption: "Vavrinec Hradilek, canoe slalom, Czech Republic, 25. Until today I didn't even know canoeist was a word."

There has been a massive sense-of-humour boost and even feminists like myself will not complain when you say Lizzie Armitstead looks like an incredibly strong flower fairy in a helmet.

Open-mouthed staring
Olympic watchers of yore admitted upfront that open-mouthed staring was one of the core purposes of the Games. In ancient Greece, the athletes were asked to march naked through the streets before the games – it was a warm-up exercise for the spectators, before the main event of watching them all compete naked, which (I would think) takes an incredible amount of concentration.

Wearing clothes came to signify shame in a less-than-peak-condition body. We are nearing that situation today – after all the swimmers, did the judo women not look overdressed? All the clothes they had to wear was almost an insult to their skill.

The years 364 to 2008 may turn out to have been the anomaly and soon all perfect people will be naked throughout the Games – something to consider for Rio.

Anyway, moving on. Why is it not offensive, the slavering? Because of the almost pitch-perfect balance of men and women. Usually, when people go on about attributes, they are female – Kylie Minogue's arse springs unbidden to my mind, which shows my age. Unlike her arse, of course, which never does.

If the gazing falls entirely on one gender, I get uneasy. If it falls equally on everybody, you think maybe there is no ulterior motive. Maybe we are staring because they are amazing.

The perfection has a purpose. The usual business of objectification downplays the fact that the body is attached to a person. But you do not debase an athlete when you go on about her thighs; her body is indivisible from her life's work. It is her pride and joy.

Plus, there is the simple maths that it is impossible to offend, by objectifying, gazing, fixating or obsessing over in any other way, someone who is so superior. Some idiot on Twitter speculated about the sexuality of weightlifter Zoe Smith, to which she replied on her blog: "What makes you think that we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive? What do you want us to do? Shall we stop weightlifting, amend our diet in order to completely get rid of our 'manly' muscles and become housewives in the sheer hope that one day you will look more favourably upon us and we might actually have a shot with you?"

On the subject of thighs, a picture of André Greipel and Robert Forstemann went viral last week. The German cyclists were having a quad competition. Forstemann won hands down: he has legs like an Edwardian grand piano. These bodies are not simply perfect, they are differently perfect. The rest of the time the rules of attractiveness are circumscribed, handed down by a prissy marketing automaton who does not like smells. In mainstream images of physical perfection, you would never see a woman with big shoulders; you would only see a man who had waxed his chest in a special-interest publication. You would never see a woman with quads that meant anything; you would rarely see a guy as wiry as Bradley Wiggins.

So there is a novelty value to it all, too. But it is also a gallery that reflects the fact that we all like ­different things, that enforced physical Fordism (any colour, as long as it is black: any female body, as long as it is thin; any male body, as long as it is muscly but not weird) does not really suit the marvellous variety of human desire. – © Guardian News & Media 2012