The bodies of gods and goddesses

PORTFOLIO

Ever since the first Olympics, people have admired athletes not only for physical achievement but also for physique achievement.

Portfolio

February 03, 2002|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

Sometimes when I watch the Olympic games, I get the same feeling as when I gaze upon Michelangelo's David.

There he stands, one of the most handsome men I've ever seen. He virtually defines the classical notion of beauty: well-defined musculature, chiseled cheekbones, noble countenance. Atop his pedestal in the Galleria dell' Accademia in Florence, he exudes determination and youthfulness. It is as though, merely standing before me, he is mustering his energy and courage before the battle with Goliath.

Beginning Friday, there on television will be the Olympic athletes, some of the most handsome men and women I'll ever see. They help define our contemporary idea of beauty: Figure skater Michelle Kwan with her balletic grace. Speed skater Apolo Ohno with his explosive strength. Skier Travis Mayer with his exuberant moves. They are expert, trim and powerful, as measured by both their muscles and their success. Many, like the figure skaters, will wear daringly minimal outfits, or, like the speed skaters, clothes that leave little about their physiques to the imagination.

I suspect that at least a few among the hundreds of millions expected to view the games agree with me: There's a guilty pleasure in watching Olympic athletes perform. Our enjoyment in seeing physically beautiful people in peak condition doing their utmost to succeed is suffused with awe. It's also fueled by hero worship and patriotism. And spiced with fantasy. But as we sit, glued to our televisions, we're part of a centuries-old tradition. The practice of celebrating the beauty of athletes is almost as old as the games themselves.

Greek origins

The first Olympic contests were held about 2,800 years ago as part of religious festivals, and were designed to showcase the training and discipline of the young men of ancient Greece. Events included wrestling matches, javelin tosses and discus throwing. Nary a figure skate or snowboard was in sight. Only freeborn Greek men were allowed to compete, and they often did so in the nude.

As early as the sixth century B.C., winners of the games were considered heroes -- and treated as celebrities. The Greeks commissioned statues of the athletes and placed them on pedestals as public art. "The sculptures were placed in the center of town to show everyone who the winner was and to show how strong and how well-trained they were," says Regine Schulz, curator of ancient art at Baltimore's Walters Art Museum.

The artists of ancient Greece were the first to celebrate the beauty of the human form. Before them, the Egyptians were more concerned with indicating status than glorifying the human body. In sculpture, Egyptian artists depicted men and woman clothed, bejeweled and wearing elaborate headdresses -- the accoutrements of importance in society.

"The idea of the beauty of the strong fighter had been in existence in the East and in Egypt for a long time," Schulz says. "The idea of the male body as beautiful was created in Greece."

The transition from depicting warriors as heroes to glorifying the body through images of athletes is easy to trace even in a single museum. In the ancient art galleries at the Walters, an Athenian amphora, or large oval vase, made around 530 B.C., is decorated with a warrior wearing a helmet and carrying a shield as he mounts his chariot. A few rooms away, a sculpture carved from marble and standing on a pedestal depicts a well-muscled, nude young man. Though the figure is missing his head, left foot and much of his arms, it's clear that he is frozen in mid-stride. He leans his weight into his left foot; only his right toes touch the ground. The sculpture is a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture made in 440 B.C. of a champion boxer, Cyniscus. It was created by Polyclitus and probably depicts the athlete raising his arm to place a victory wreath on his head.

One early image is still popular today: that of the discus thrower. Created around 460 B.C. by the Greek artist Myron, the bronze sculpture shows in exquisite detail a young man frozen in the instant between gathering his strength -- and then tossing the discus with all possible force.

"The artist has captured the action of collecting and of releasing," says Baltimore painter Raoul Middleman. "One foot is relaxed, and at the same time, he is tensed to throw. The artist has caught that instant between the two."

Magnetism of sport

Athletic charisma has been used for darker purposes: The Nazis tried to bolster their claims of Aryan supremacy by showcasing athletes. Artists like Gerhard Keil and Jurgen Wegener were commissioned to paint German athletes as resembling the heroes of ancient Greece. And in her film about the 1936 Berlin games, Olympiad, director Leni Riefenstahl glorified athletes as members of a new super race.

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