Let the Games begin

Next week, all of us with middling BMIs, plastic trophies collecting dust in the attic and the inability to work out for even a few hours of the week will watch and marvel at those who have put in countless years for their moment in the sun. With our ass firmly on couch or chair, we will watch them with awe, admiration, national pride, respect, and perhaps a little bit of lust.

Yesterday I, like thousands worldwide (probably mostly men) just had to click on the alluring figure of a 19-year-old happily warming up before a hurdle race. What made her so appealing was not just her looks, but the context of the competition: she is obviously healthy, vibrant, youthful, energetic, enthusiastic, radiant, and above all, athletic.

But the sexualization of female athletes has long been controversial. There are two kinds of discrimination that women can face in sports: limited access to funding, resources, exposure, etc. and inferior treatment (like having to fly coach when the guys are going first-class) and the kind that focuses on an athlete’s physical appearance more than her physical prowess. This phenomenon is apparent when athletes who are not top-ranked in their fields get inordinate media coverage (and all the perks that entails) while the less photogenic champions are largely ignored.

In my opinion, women should have the same rights and opportunities as men in sports as they should in every area of life. But I can’t say that the glorification of their natural beauty is a bad thing — and even if it was, I don’t think that will ever stop our species from celebrating it.

In the original games in Ancient Greece, as you may have heard, the athletes often competed naked (imagine that!). Says this Wikipedia entry: “The festival was meant to celebrate, in part, the achievements of the human body. Olive oil was used by the competitors … as a natural cosmetic, to keep skin smooth, and provide an appealing look for the participants.”

In ancient Sparta, both men and women often exercised in the nude, and young women as well as young men may have participated in the Gymnopaedia (“Festival of Nude Youths”).[94][95] 

Glorifying healthy, natural beauty is hardwired into our genes. I myself find these representations of kick-ass chicks way sexier than the hard-partying, designer label-flaunting, makeup-caked versions we are usually bombarded with, the kind of skin-deep frivolity that is held up as the gold standard of modern women. I also like to see women in the spotlight for something other than auto-tuned pop music, Hollywood credits or getting knocked up at 16. Role models of successful, smart, do-gooding women of all shapes and ages are even better, of course.

But if a woman can throw a mean left hook, throw a javelin or complete a long-distance swim while still looking amazing, well, I think it’s just one more reason   to praise them. My husband brought home the latest issue of Maxim magazine and I was mesmerized by the two-page spread of gorgeous Olympians from around the globe who will be competing in London. Just wow.

A woman should not be defined by her looks, nor should they become a huge discussion (as they frequently do in politics) unless the said woman is a model. A competitor in the Special Olympics is just as, if not more so, worthy of recognition as a stunning tennis player. But I think part of a woman’s self-confidence comes from looking her best, on and off the field, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Whether you want to call it natural beauty or healthy sex appeal, we can all develop it by eating right, kicking detrimental addictions and working out a little harder.

I love a well-muscled woman and a health-conscious man, someone who obviously appreciates their body and treats it right, someone who can age gracefully, run a marathon, climb a mountain, kayak a river … a healthy, active, competent person is so much sexier than a couch potato who drinks too much and pops pills. And while I did feel a little prick of envy checking out these paragons of perfection, it was followed by increased motivation to get my ass in gear and try to be, like the Olympians, the best version of myself I can be.

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