Humanizing the Olympic Body

Humanizing the Olympic Body

On July 27, 2012, the Summer Olympic Games began in London.  Depending on your interests, they are the highlight of your year in sports or just another blip on your busy life.  For me, I’m a Winter Olympic Games kind of girl, but I do appreciate several of the Summer Olympic events and I, like most of the world, watched in awe and excitement as Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals in 2008 (I think I actually remember jumping up and down, screaming at the top of my lungs.  You?)  I am giddy at the prospect of him earning even more medals, and he is one of my favorite Olympic athletes (this list also includes Dana Torres).  But as the games approached, what struck me the most was the images of the Olympic athletic body published in the months and weeks leading up to the opening ceremony.  Now, I work out on a regular basis (usually, if my hips and pelvis are cooperating), but as I enjoy the health benefits from my sweat sessions, I’ve also become more appreciative of athletes and athletic types.  For them, working out is not about losing weight or feeling better about oneself; it is actually a lifestyle, an integral part of their being.

However, I am also aware of the pressure they must face to maintain their physic.  Their bodies are on display for all of us to scrutinize and ogled.  For example, The New York Times has always featured American Olympic hopefuls, such as Ryan Locthe and Dana Torres, while the Guardian ran a slide show of Great Britain’s 2012 Olympic Team.  You cannot help but marvel at the work these men and women undertake, pushing their bodies to extremes that most of us will never experience (most of us find pushing the buttons on a remote a workout).  But at the same time, there is a perverseness to this attention.  Last week, the Huffington Post reported that Leisel Jones, eight-time Australian Olympic medal winner, was called unfit (and fat) by Australia’s Herald Sun.  Disregarding the fact that she will be competing in London, they questioned her readiness, to which the public and her teammates replied with a general resounding “F*** you, yes she is!”  Yet, the pictures that the Sun published stood in direct opposition of the ideal we hold in our mind of the female and male Olympic body.  Even the Guardian and the New York Times’ slide shows and features include a majority of images of half-dressed athletes in various poses.  Makes sense right?  We want to see the ripped abs, defined arms, and ultra-toned thighs.  I mean, seeing Michael Phelps in a Speedo doesn’t exactly hurt the eyes.

But the controversy over the images of Jones highlights the ideal that we and they hold onto fastidiously.  We want our athletes to be fast, strong, and fit.  We want our favorites to win and have that medal swinging from their neck.  But to achieve glory, they have to push themselves to the limit and beyond.  Although many might thrive under this pressure, for some, athletic perfection can prove disastrous in the short and long-term.


When I was a kid, the Winter and Summer Olympics were held every four years and I looked forward to them with an excitement that I usually reserved for Christmas.  The rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviets was the best part.  I still remember the thrill of the U.S. hockey team’s win over the USSR, wishing I could be like Mary Lou Retton, and remarking to my mother upon seeing the East German female athletes on T.V., “Wow they look like men.”  By the 1980s, the East Germans had a well-established doping program that transformed their Olympic team into an Olympic machine.  The transformation not only garnered them Olympic (and other sports) medals, but also international prestige.  For many of the athletes, especially the females, the doping program wreaked havoc on their bodies while they were training and also as they have aged.

The history of doping reflects that competition and winning can lead many athletes (and their trainers) to look for other means to enhance performance.  Athletes have used various diets and devices in order to find the key that open the door to athletic perfection.  During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the promise that medicine made to improve men and women’s lives bled into athletic endeavors.  Advancements in science and medicine held the potential for athletic glory; therefore any development that increased an athlete’s chance to win found acceptance.  Trainers and athletes incorporated new drugs into their daily schedule.  Methamphetamines became the drug of choice, but by the 1950s anabolic and androgenic steroids gave new hope for peak performance.[1]

But for all the promises, steroids proved dangerous. Many of the East German athletes, medicated without their consent, have suffered or suffer heart conditions, infertility, cancer, bulimia, bone and muscle damage, and some struggled with their sexuality, which they think believe stemmed from the use of steroids.  Heidi (Andreas) Krieger, who participated in 1986 Olympics, underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1997 and believes that the East Germany’s program, which pumped him with androgenic steroids (which literally develops male characteristics in females), had a considerable amount of influence.

The use of steroids may have given athletes an edge, but their illegality has pushed use underground, and exposure of doping has meant that many revered male and female competitors fell from grace.  But as scholars and commentators recognize, the public’s desire for sports drama, the possibility of financial success and security, and the conflicting medical reports regarding the advantages and disadvantages of steroid use, keep syringes filled and pills ready.

Although steroids have brought glory and demise, doping has added a layer of expectation of the athletic body.  It must be leaner, meaner, and faster.  We will not accept, for most sports, an ounce of extra fat, signs of bloat and swelling, and any possibility of weakness.   Perfection is what we demand and what elite athletes strive for.  If enhancements provide an edge, for some, it’s a risk worth taking.

Eating Disorders

As I discussed in my blog post “The Skinny Fat Girl,” we have skewed notions of the skinny and the fat body.  I would argue the same holds true of the athletic body, although we hold certain expectations.  For the most part, thinness and muscular definition are integral parts to the athletic build (though there are some that defy this and I would dare you to call them unfit).  We take this to mean a sign of health, but again, is it?  Researchers, psychologists, doctors have found that athletes, especially females, are more prone to eating disorders.  Aesthetic sports (or what I like to call the abs, chest, and ass sports) i.e. gymnastics and swimming, place emphasis on the physical shape.  All athletes in these events are under intense scrutiny and pressure.  Any inkling of a perceived physical flaw can lead to serious doubts.  No wonder why researchers have found a higher incidence of eating disorders among these athletes than in other sporting competitions.

I do not want to make this about male vs. female athletes, because the research has found that among elite athletes, eating disorders are found in both men and women.  However, there is a higher incidence of eating disorders among female athletes.  Yet, let’s put that aside for minute and again recognize that the pressure to attain the ideal athletic build ignores gender to some degree.

Men have faced increasing pressure to physically display their masculinity.  The weak, effeminate male received condemnation, whereas the muscle epitomized health, sexuality and sexual prowess, and most times racial superiority.[2] The bigger the muscle a man had, the manlier he was.

Even if the muscle man has fallen out favor, we still laud the defined muscular features we expect in male athletic bodies.  For Olympic male bodies, muscle was always a key, but the body has become machine of power and strength, compartmentalized into defined biceps, quads, gluts, abs, and psoas.

No pudginess allowed.

For female athletes, muscular definition is new.   Femininity has been defined by its soft shapes, not hard muscles.  Muscles were masculine.  Muscles in women were freakish and dangerous.  Prior to the 1970s, full breasts, curvy hips, and cushy middles gave women sex appeal and even as the ideal female bodies lost their voluptuous appeal, muscles in a woman were still considered unattractive and certain unfeminine.  We can certain see this change in the Olympic female athlete.  Setting aside the East German controversy, female athletes, until the 1980s, reflected culture norms regarding femininity.  There is no doubt that these women were top athletes of their time, but they still were supposed to look womanly.

But now, female athletes are celebrated for their muscle.  Muscle is indeed beautiful and feminine.  It denotes strengthen, endurance, and power and reflects how far women have come.

Feminism did good.

Yet, as we watch these unbelievable men and women, we have to remember that they are human.  They may be able to outrun and outswim us and we might be exhausted just watching them, but their bodies are not superhuman.  They are in superior shape than most people in the world, but it is still a human body that experiences bloating, strains muscles, gains some fat, and feels fatigue.  Let’s remember that the Olympic Games now are in no way shape or form the same games of the past.  They are more scientific, commercial, and illustrious than the games of the twentieth century, especially prior to the 1980s, and this puts immense pressure on the athletes involved.  Let’s celebrate the games in the next two weeks, revel in their athletic achievements, and remember the humans behind the goggles, flipping over the uneven bars, hanging from the rings, hitting the volleyball, and running towards the finish line.

[1] See John Hoberman, Testosterone Dreams: Rejuvenation, Aphrodisiac, Doping (Berkley: University of California Press, 2008), and Daniel Rosen, Dope: A History of Performance Enhancement in Sports from the Nineteenth Century to Today (Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008).  PBS has a great hour-long documentary, Doping For Gold, on the East German program. You can view it at:

[2]See Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender & Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), Kristin Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish America and Philippine-American Wars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000)

Cheryl Lemus earned her PhD from Northern Illinois University in 2011. Her dissertation, “‘The Maternity Racket’: Medicine, Consumerism, and the American Modern Pregnancy, 1876-1960,” examines the rise of the modern pregnancy in 20th-century America. She is mainly interested in gender and women’s history, the history of medicine in America, and the rise of consumer culture.