Do the Olympics Idolize the Human Body?
One day, our resurrected bodies will be free from pain—all that mounting with wings as eagles and running without growing weary. One of the things I enjoy about the Olympics is how the athletes’ strength and speed can hint at the futures of our glorified bodies. But sometimes I wonder if the Olympics set up the human body as a false god to be worshiped.
I’ve been talking with several people recently about the feature that NBC aired about Michael Phelps’s body (called, revealingly, “Michael Phelps: Perfect Body”). We’ve all been slightly disturbed by how mechanistically the human body is presented within the clip. Phrases like “superior genetics” have icky overtones left over from the eugenics movement, and there’s something reductive about the way the graphics chop Phelps into his component parts: torso, legs, feet, etc. On the whole, the video treats Phelps as if he is a robot extremely well designed for the task of swimming. In a way, this video about the “perfect body” actually devalues human bodies by making them seem like machines.
Phelps’s eight gold medals and constant world-record-breaking are amazing, and no doubt some of the credit goes to his physical build—as well as to his training regimen. Along with the rest of America, I’ve celebrated watching Michael Phelps crush his competition, but I think my favorite tidbit I’ve learned about him is that he’s ADHD. Not perfect. He has flaws, and perhaps he wouldn’t be the athlete he is without those flaws.
The idea that there’s a formula to the perfect body type for a particular sport is easily proven false by Jamaican runner Usain Bolt. At 6’5”, he towers above his fellow sprinters, who have the compact, muscular bodies more common in short-distance running. Bolt , according to common sports wisdom, should not be able to excel at sprinting, because tall people don’t have a fast enough turnover between strides. However, it seems, if a tall person’s strides are significantly longer than everyone else’s, he can win with fewer strides. That’s what Bolt did, even if his body isn’t “perfect” for his sport. (He definitely seems to have flaws in form and discipline as well, but that’s outside the scope of this post.)
The exceptions to the standard expectations about athletes’ bodies are always the most interesting to me. When 33-year-old Oksana Chusovitina won her silver medal in women’s vault, I cheered and chalked it up as a victory for all women who have ever been deemed “too old” for something. Here’s a 33-year-old—a 33-year-old who’s given birth, no less—proving her excellence in a field dominated by 16-year-olds (and in China’s case, perhaps some who aren’t yet even 16). Chusovitina’s story also showcases the fragility of the human body, in addition to its resilience: the reason she competed for Germany rather than for her native Ukraine is that she moved to Germany to seek treatment for her son, who was diagnosed with leukemia. (His cancer is now in remission.)
The Olympics may revel in bodily “perfection,” but they also direct our attention, over and over again, to the breakability and transience of our bodies. Liu Xiang, who won the men’s 110m hurdles in Athens, couldn’t even make it to the first hurdle in his race in Beijing, due to an injury. He tried, but was clearly in excruciating pain. Bodies do this sort of thing to us. Hamstrings pull, bones break, joints deteriorate or inflame, tumors metastasize, gums recede. We do wither like the grass. And yet this is the human body in which Jesus became incarnate. This is the human body in which the Holy Spirit dwells.
Though I do resent some of the excesses in how announcers praise athletes’ bodies, the Olympics serve to remind me of the “already and not yet” qualities of our bodies’ redemption. The human body has already been made into a sacred dwelling place by God choosing to take on human form; however, we still live in a fallen world, and our bodies constantly remind us that we will surely die. Even in our fallen condition, though, there are still surprises and hints of the glory that awaits the faithful.
Though I don’t go in for watching the Olympics (or really any spectator sport), I can certainly understand why it is that we as a society celebrate the human body like we do. We do the same to another aspect of our existence, the human mind. Particular genius is perhaps as recognized as (or more than) physical perfection.
Part of the answer to the question of how much we celebrate a person’s body or mind has to do with how deeply we can relate to the particular thing the object of our inspection is accomplishing. Phelps is much easier to get behind than, say, an awesome diver—simply because traveling from point A to point B is easier to understand than something as abstracted as “style.” Einstein’s easy to appreciate because you just think of the smartest person you know and say “Even Smarter.” Masterful accountants are not so easy to laud, because we don’t really think of them as doing something hard, just tedious, and while people wish they were more athletic or intelligent, nobody wishes they were more able to be bored for long periods of time.
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