The Olympics are normally an opportunity for us to marvel at the things the human body can do if it’s conditioned to its peak. Watching people break world records is thrilling in its revelation of the possibility of human improvement — with continued improvements in science, and in health and training, what can’t we do? We may no longer be walking on the moon, but we fly higher and run faster on our own planet with every passing year. But part of what’s particularly exciting for me about the summer Olympics this year is the kinds of conversations competitors are sparking about the capacities of bodies we often see as less capable or less normatively desirable.
First, there’s Sarah Robles, the weightlifter who is literally the strongest person one of the strongest people in the United States, but is barely getting by because, unlike some of her fellow competitors who are the best in their fields, she doesn’t have the backing of or an endorsement with a major company. As Maya writes at Feministing:
There’s no doubt that some sports–both men’s and women’s–are considered sexier than others when it comes to sponsorships and media attention. And certainly only the most famous Olympic athletes are able to bring in the big bucks through six-figure endorsements. But for women like Robles, who don’t fit the thin ideal of women’s athleticism, it’s particularly difficult. As she notes, “You can get that sponsorship if you’re a super-built guy or a girl who looks good in a bikini. But not if you’re a girl who’s built like a guy.”
I think of all of that is true. And I’d add that while we have archetypes of women who are less strong than men, but manage to hold their own through cleverness, and of bigger women who are funny or cheery (or even occasionally intimidating, as with Melissa McCarthy’s pep talk in Bridesmaids), we don’t have a positive established archetype of women who are as big and as strong as men, whether as heroes, or rescuers, or funny action stars. Advertisers may not be interested in Robles, but they, and their marketing agencies, may simply not be creative enough to figure out the many engaging things they could do with her. If she medals in London, one would hope that someone, somewhere, gets their creative juices flowing and figures that out.
Then there’s Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee who just qualified to represent his country in the 400 meters and the 4-by-400 in London. Pistorius is a reminder that astonishing physical accomplishment isn’t merely something that’s available to able-bodied people. Whether or not his prosthetics constitute an unfair advantage — the consensus seems to be that they may make him slower to start than able-bodied runners, canceling out any boost — the point remains that being able to run on them, much less run as fast as Pistorius does, is a major achievement. If he shows well on this enormous international stage, his presence could have a major impact on the way people with disabilities are perceived around the world.
This is the reason that stories like Bleacher Report’s idiotic ranking of hot female athletes are so infuriating, and why the counterexamples of people like Robles and Pistorius are so important. Pursuing your Olympic dreams doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll end up an avatar of normative physical beauty, nor should it. And you don’t need a normatively attractive body in order to be physically extraordinary.