More NonSense: Olympic Edition

Photo from Athlete, by Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein
Photo from Athlete, by Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein

Despite my dig at the spectacle of sports being no match for the wonder of scientific discovery, I actually do know how to enjoy the drama that arises from competition between athletes, from time to time. I've been following the Olympics like many TV viewers, and this is one occasion I will indulge in the bizarre tribalism that comes from pitting nation against nation (Will the U.S. beat China in the final medal count tally? etc). I can't really stand it in other contexts. To my mind, nothing encapsulates the primal appeal of the Olympics as the impressive performances of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, a man who makes America's finest jocks look like veritable slowpokes. G#&*n, that man can run!

There's a tinge of narcissism involved when celebrating the achievements of athletes or in fetishizing their public images. They're held up as role models of what we mere mortals can achieve if we put our minds to it. Uh, not likely. Elite Olympians are real-world "mutants" whose genetics fortuitously suit the needs of their preferred sport. And who knows how long we humans will let natural selection have its way before we reinstate the foolish practice of eugenics to engineer even more extreme athletes?

Photo from Athlete, by Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein
Photo from Athlete, by Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein

Awhile back, Nina Matsumoto posted full-body images from photographer Howard Schatz's photo project Athlete. She was making a point about how her colleagues needed to be reminded about the physical diversity of the real world, and that this diversity needs to be better reflected in the pages of comic books. Andrew Wheeler extended that by arguing that physical diversity is a reflection of good character design. Fair enough. It gets pretty monotonous when people in comics are drawn the same way. Off course, all the world's athletes only comprise a very narrow spectrum of humanity's overall diversity. But Wheeler was primarily concerned with comparing the portraits in Schatz's photos to comic book renditions of superhero physiques.

Sumōtori Emanuel Yarbrough. Photo from Howard Schatz website
Sumōtori Emanuel Yarbrough. Photo from Howard Schatz website

From what I understand of the Golden Age of comics, its artists weren't exactly aiming for "realism" when drawing superheroes. Like their ancient Greek counterparts, they seemed to be more interested in capturing an ideal of physical perfection, informed by the fitness and bodybuilding aesthetic of the era. In short, they were of their time.* But I strongly suspect that if I could observe that period's real athletes, they would not have demonstrated the same variety found in Schatz's book. Why? Individuals who crush previous sporting records, like the great Bolt himself, are not so much paragons as they are outliers. Mutants if you prefer. There's no such thing as a generic ideal that all athletes should train for. Only how far one can push a body's individual limits towards a certain radical direction in order to win at one's chosen sporting event. And today's athletes surpass their predecessors from decades past with more conditioned, functional, and specialized physiques. Their bodies aren't perfect, they're just better molded to fit the task at hand. But ideals about absolute perfection still circulate as aspirational fantasies among supermodels, bodybuilders, the fashion and beauty industries, celebrities and media types, and geeks who take the "Olympic level" descriptions in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe a little too seriously. So it's probably inevitable when fans and media pick on athletes for not living up to those unrealistic standards, irrelevant as they are to in-field performance.**

What's even funnier is that mutant or not, elite athletes are as a group still a whole lot better-looking, not to mention better conditioned, than the general population. As Keith Knight reminds us:

The K Chronicles: XXX Games by Keith Knight
*  Anyone who looks at the evolution of superhero art will notice how ideas about physical perfection have changed over time. And naturally, some artists are less interested in idealization and more known for grossly exaggerating and distorting human anatomy for aesthetic effect.

** not to mention sometimes becoming the recipient of sexist remarks.