For these weeks only, when the Olympic Games are underway, watching the near-deities for whom every muscle has a purpose and every tweak of a body hair is a bid for greatness, we are allowed to make remarks we would never normally make. We’re allowed to gawp at perfection, marvel at beauty, openly wish we could prod chests and have a go on triceps — it’s the Olympic Gaze, an objectification amnesty. You want to compare the swimming to a gay porn film? Be our guest. You want to rank the athletes in order of do-ability? You are welcome.
There’s been a massive sense-of-humour boost and even feminists such as myself will not complain when you say Lizzie Armitstead looks like an incredibly strong flower fairy in a helmet. So long as it’s not only the beach volleyball players — if we’re going to stare at everyone as if they’ve just dropped down from heaven, then who can complain?
Why isn’t it offensive, the slavering? Because of the almost pitch-perfect balance of men and women. Usually, when people go on about attributes, they are female. If the gazing falls entirely on either gender, I get a whiff of something other than admiration, a desire to undermine or get a reaction or be modern. When it falls equally upon everybody, you have to think that maybe there is no ulterior motive. Maybe we’re staring because they’re amazing. That’s it!
When the perfection has a purpose, you get a sense of the bodies having a mind of their own. The normal business of objectification always downplays the fact that the body is attached to a person. In porn, they take this to an almost comical level, cropping the head clean off, the better to enjoy whatever fantasies you want to attach to the rest of the body. It ends up debasing everyone: the object, the subject, the newsagent, passersby.
Contrawise, you do not debase when you go on about an athlete’s thighs; her body is indivisible from her life’s work, it can clear 100 metres’ worth of hurdles in 12.54 seconds; it is her pride and joy. To say she’s perfect is like telling someone they have cute children.
Plus, there is the simple mathematics that it’s impossible to offend, by objectifying, gazing, fixating, or obsessing over in any other way, someone who is so superior.
In mainstream images of physical perfection, you would never see a woman with big shoulders; you would only see a man who had waxed his chest in a special interest publication; you would never see a woman with quads that meant anything; you would rarely see a guy as wiry as Bradley Wiggins.
So there’s a novelty value to it all, but also, finally, a gallery that reflects the fact that we all like different things, that enforced physical Fordism (any colour, so long as it’s black; any female body, so long as it’s thin; any male body, so long as it’s muscly but not weird) doesn’t really suit the marvellous variety of human desire.