Bodies by Zeus Olympian form: To a nation of couch potatoes, all this musculature is unsettling.

July 31, 1996

THOSE OF US with dust on our stationary bicycles and Arch Deluxes on our training table can only gape at the images flickering from our TV sets.

Those female divers and gymnasts with the upper bodies of men? Those sprinters who fly like gazelles despite carrying the musculature of linebackers? How does one reconcile the shoulders of a Mary Ellen Clark, the lat muscles of a Michael Johnson, the biceps of the male gymnasts, the pre-pubescent voices of female gymnasts in their late teens?

One popular running-shoe commercial has athletes proclaiming, "This is my planet." But if this is their planet, from where did most of the rest of us evolve, since we no more resemble these Olympians than the aliens in "Independence Day"?

The striking form of these elite athletes isn't new: Eons ago, the chiseled participants of the ancient Olympics inspired artists. In more recent times, prize-winning portraitist Annie Leibovitz trained her camera on the bare bodies of Olympians.

Nevertheless, the physical bounds shattered by these highly trained athletes is striking, even unsettling. If NBC-TV never aired another mawkish feature on the regimen these participants endure, their musculature alone would provide silent testament to the stresses and strains. Our society is sports-obsessed, yet we're not accustomed to athletes on our daily sports pages looking like this: We're used to pitchers with pot bellies, linemen topping 300 pounds, football players in need of a fast-food fix to make it through training camp. Baltimore's famed stadium is graced by a statue of America's most famous sports hero, lumpy Babe Ruth. No Adonis, he.

So the rare sight of these Olympians elicits wonder and, at times, accusatory whispers. Yet as exquisite a specimen as are these athletes, and as poor a fettle as the surgeon general would proclaim the average American to be in, most of us would probably consider the perfect body somewhere between the two.

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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