If the ancient Greeks had invented Wheaties, they might've been inclined to put star Russian gymnast "Sexy" Alexei Nemov on the box cover. Or Studio City's gold medalist swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg, he of the chiseled jawline and the torso worthy of replication on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
For the original Greek Olympians, athletic virtuosity and physical beauty were inseparable. To revere one was to revere both. And as anyone knows who has watched them excel in Sydney this month, Nemov and Krayzelburg are not only superb athletes but also buffed golden boys custom-made for this era of instant mass-media idolatry.
But would the ancients likewise have honored the regal U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson, the coltish Belizian American runner Marion Jones with her megawatt smile, or the rivetingly sensual Svetlana Khorkina, Russia's self-dramatizing diva of the uneven bars? Alas, even with Socrates around to advise them (and without Bob Costas), the Greeks and their cultural heirs weren't enlightened enough to endorse any ideal of beauty that wasn't staunchly Greco-Roman and exclusively male. The classical Greeks practically invented the notion of the muscular, mathematically proportioned male body in motion--as opposed to the static, more androgynous art of the Egyptians--and their concept set the Western benchmark for beauty well into the Renaissance, says Lee Hendrix, curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum and coordinator of last winter's museum exhibition "The Body Beautiful: Artists Draw the Nude."
Well, so much for old Grecian formulas. Now that Miss Universe pageants are deemed sexist kitsch, and most Hollywood filmmakers prefer hip irony to the studied glamour of stars and starlets, the Olympics have become the planet's premiere showcase for the appreciation of human beauty in all its multi-hued, dual-gendered and many splendored forms. We're not talking mere "sexiness" here, the hormonal depth charge generated by today's frisky celebrities. We're talking the properties of beauty which gratify not so much the libido as the eye and the mind--those "intense, ordered, humane, exultant" qualities, as art critic Arthur C. Danto has written, that dignify and uplift all humanity.
The beauty on display in Sydney is, like the athletes themselves, all over the map. It's the muscly, compacted intensity of Japanese marathoner Naoko Takahashi; the marsupial quickness and ease of Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, with his size-17 feet; or the gap-toothed geniality and dreamy self-possession of Thorpe's Aboriginal teammate Cathy Freeman. It's the heroic bulk of American super-heavyweight lifter Cheryl Haworth, the centaurlike synthesis of man and steed between U.S. gold medal equestrian David O'Connor and his horse Custom Made. Unlike classical Greek beauty, this beauty is quirky and asymmetrical, nonacademic and mutable.
"We're seeing a kind of polymorphous or variable beauty" at the 2000 Olympics, says Robert Sobieszek, curator of photography and deputy director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who remembers that when he was growing up in the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Mamie van Doren personified the gold standard of American pulchritude. In those Cold War days, Olympic contests between U.S. and Soviet women were inevitably framed as "our blond bombshell versus the Russian babushka," Sobieszek says. However, athletes were judged less on the basis of beauty than national utility, like refrigerators or nuclear missiles. What mattered above all was one-upping the Evil Empire.
Pointing to the example of runway fashion shows, where it's now routine to see a Ugandan model striding alongside a French, Brazilian or Polynesian peer, Sobieszek says that international beauty standards have "gotten a lot more pluralistic over the course of the last half century." Like the concept of nationalism itself, which the modern Olympics still venerate despite their professed goal of universal brotherhood, the concept of beauty as a restrictive club open only to certain ethnicities or body types seems increasingly irrelevant to the 21st-century world that is symbolically taking shape in Sydney.
Of course, the Olympics always have been a showcase not only for beauty but for the ideology of beauty, for beauty's role in propping up a power structure or advancing a set of political, economic or other beliefs. When the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl made "Olympia," her thundering four-hour homage to the 1936 Berlin Games, she was not only glorifying the human body but, wittingly or unwittingly, bolstering Nazi propaganda aims. Hitler's hopes of demonstrating Aryan athletic superiority at the Berlin Games were shattered by Jesse Owens' now-legendary victory.