In Awe of Bodies: How the Olympians Remind Us of Our Humanity

Editor’s Note:  John Dyer is the author of From the Garden to the City, an excellent book on Christianity and technology.  We are delighted to publish his reflection on Olympians and bodies. 

From Embarrassment to Awe

Passing a row of large televisions at a bigbox store yesterday, I became aware that I was surrounded by images of human flesh.

Normally this would evoke one of two reactions from me. If my two small children were with me, I would be embarrassed and angry that I had exposed them to something they shouldn’t see. If I were by myself, I would probably feel shame about the battle inside me between the part that wanted to stare at the screen and the part that values holiness and purity.

But this time, I had a surprisingly different reaction.

I looked up at the screen and even though I saw a woman dressed in form-fitting, skin-revealing clothing, I didn’t feel overwhelmed with embarrassment or shame, but with awe at the stunning figure before me. I even looked rather closely at her, carefully following the line from her deliberately outstretched hands, along her lean, muscular arms, past her pulsating abdominal muscles, and down around her large, powerful thighs as she launched off the starting block, propelling herself into the water ahead of her seven competitors in the time trial.

Bodies Are Good For Something

To tell you the truth, I actually can’t remember if the first person I saw on screen was a male or female swimmer, but I used a woman in the description above because it heightens the problem of how we’ve been trained to view the human body and the reactions we have even to its description.

Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe was of Native Ameri...

Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe was of Native American (Sac and Fox) and European American ancestry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a given day, our eyes will land upon thousands of images of products and people on billboards, screens, and magazine covers. And for every 100 images that prominently display a human body, probably 99 of them do so primarily in reference to that person’s desirability, particularly their sexual desirability. According to these ads (that we see all day every day) the human body is a tool whose primary usefulness is its ability to attract other bodies for the purpose of engaging in private activities.

After all, we don’t really need the body for anything else. Work can be done on computers, things can be ordered online, and church can be streamed to a screen. Bodies are, for the most part, simply an awkward go between. When we do think about our bodies, it’s usually to find a way to give it pleasure, ease its pain, or make it look better.

Looking Through the Display

This is what makes the Olympics such a unique and even redemptive event. Every day millions of people are transfixed by images of semi-nude or fully naked bodies engaging in all range of provocative activity. But for a few short weeks every four years, billions of eyes are fixed on human forms whose primary activity is something other than sex.

Sure, the Olympics are often a spectacle of marketing, politics, and bad streaming quality. But underneath it all, the Olympians themselves combine power, grace, strength, and skill into a long forgotten form of beauty. When we behold that beauty, even for a few seconds in a bigbox store, it is capable of reminding us that our functional beliefs about human flesh are often woefully deficient, ungodly even, and a denial of the gospel story God is telling.

In the Olympians, we see human bodies achieving greater feats of strength and speed year after year, and this reminds us of that the wonder of the image of God present in every man, woman, and child, good in and of itself for its presence and existence, not merely its ability to attract or allure.

Yet, in the perfection of the Olympians we are reminding of their mirror opposite, the weak and sick and broken and the frightening truth that this is the trajectory of us all, even of the strong, the fast, and the sexy. The magazine covers that offer us 78 tips for heightening momentary pleasure forget that we were made for eternity and that only a body perfected in holiness can give us.

So tonight and tomorrow, I invite you to turn on your turn on your screens and spend a few minutes gazing at the awesome human body, tiny images of the God who has walked among us, who gives us our value and worth, and who is perfecting us even as we are perishing.

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  • Eric E

    A couple things … First, I agree with most of what you wrote here.

    Second, I find it to be more than a coincidence that all the sports that are shown on in the US during prime time just happen to be the sports where the contestants are all “desirable” (gymnasitics, swimming, track and field, volleyball, diving, etc.). The objection might be raised, “But these are the most popular sports!” to which I would reply “Why are they the most popular sports?” I don’t have an answer to that because it’s a bit of a chicken-egg problem, but I can tell you it will be hard to convince me that diving is one of the most popular sports. Joking aside, however redemptive the Olympics might be, the Olympics as presented to America is filtered for certain types of bodies.

    There was an article by Jere Longman about Lolo Jones recently that claimed Jones was over-hyped and that the attention she has received was because of her beauty and not her athleticism. I don’t agree with most of that article but what Longman does get right is that beautiful athletes do get more attention than others. The Pretty Strong blog is a good read on this topic in general: http://prettystrongblog.blogspot.com/ They do a good job of explaining the issues that non-prime-time athletes can face – from lack of sponsorship to poorly-fitting Olympic clothing.