On the Olympic Games

By Jens Tamang

This article has been adapted from an essay “The Olympics and The Uterus,” written during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As my most recent column (“On Things I’ve Heard in the Sauna”) raised questions about the queer politics of a space within Macalester’s Leonard Center, it might be necessary to offer up a less disparaging look at the athletic institution in order to engage dialogue regarding the transformative power of sports, considering that such questions can be largely interpreted by those who cannot see beyond their own privilege (and if you need an example of this kind of interpretation please see David Bliss’ article “Spontaneous Spectacle, Too” available in the March 4 issue of the Mac Weekly). Enjoy vacation.

-The Scamp
When the female body undergoes muscular trauma, caused by exertion, the body begins to use what nutrients it can. Fat stores shrivel, including those around the breasts and thighs. Muscle tissue falls off the bone, including that around the pelvic floor, one of the major muscle groups that allow a woman to expel a fetus from her body without internal tearing. Before the muscle begins to deteriorate, the digestive system eats away at the walls of the uterine cavity, eradicating the ability to menstruate. Unable to bear children, breast-less, and practically uterus-less, it’s hard to call, for example, pre-teen Olympic gymnasts “women,” as they have been pressured, through sponsorship, to hand over their bodies for the possibility of success. I think it’s safe to say the Olympics, and other highly sponsored sporting events-though they’ve maintained some of their mythical aura-have been drained, largely, of the playfulness that makes them worth participating in, not necessarily the joy an audience member derives from watching them. As I watch the pre-teen, female gymnasts I wonder what biological markers they use to identify themselves as women-considering that some of them have given up their breasts, uterus, and the ability to bear children for the possibility of a gold medal.

The Government, commercially subsidized athletes, and steroids have obscured what it means to become an athletic hero. While once the playing field became an arena where multiple narratives regarding people, society, and culture coalesced-think of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics-today it has become a corporeal marketplace, where athletes come to stand for brands just as much as they stand for brawn. The Olympics have become more about the cold single-mindedness of athletes, like Michael Phelps and Yang Wei, and such an attitude, I’d argue, is simply symptomatic of the larger athletic downfall in America.

While biographical back-story certainly plays a role in the way we perceive the failure and success of athletes, it doesn’t necessarily affect who is going to win. I can come from a troubled background, and that might make my success all the more sweet, but it’s not going to make me faster, stronger, and more agile, per se. It’s the triumph of the “little guy” that’s inspiring. But it’s not clear who the “little guy” is anymore. Privilege has skewed it. I can watch Alicia Sacramone do well on the floor exercise, but when we know she’s lived a relatively comfortable life in Massachusetts’s pomp, attending Brown University on a scholarship she, financially, doesn’t deserve, I can’t help but wonder what dishwasher in New York could have done a better job.

Michael Phelps, as well, is a cocky piece of American cattle with the personality of a sea cucumber. When asked “What does winning all these medals mean to you?” he replied “I’m almost at loss of words [sic].to win the most gold medals is unbelievable.I don’t know what to say.I feel.incredible.” By contrast, he had more to say about his goggles falling off in the 200 fly. Phelps is at his best when he’s been beaten. In 2004, watching him grit his teeth at Thorpe and Van Den Hoogenband was enthralling. Phelps openly admits that, sometimes, his practice is fueled by anger and desire for revenge. In response to Thorpe’s schoolyard taunts, made before the 2008 games in the Australian tabloids, Phelps said, “I welcome comments. They fuel me.” And, he said it with an eerie calmness.

Of all the Olympic athletes to perform thus far, the one I admire the most is Laure Manadou, the young swimmer from France. She gleefully pranced into Athens’ 2004 games, when, at the delicate age of 17, she brought home France’s first swimming gold since Jean Boiteux in 1952. France christened its darling “La SirŠn,” or The Mermaid. She took a world record and sat, it would have seemed, at the top of the world. But two years after Athens, Manaudou embarked on furtive tryst with Italian swimmer Luca Marin, one that would end in rubble. Shortly after meeting Marin, Manaudou eloped to Italy, leaving her longtime coach, and opting to train in Turin. “Between Italy and France,” she declared, “I have chosen Luca Marin, the love of my life. I want to live with him and have a baby.” She kept her childlike optimism up until the Turin club expelled her for what they deemed a lazy attitude. Her vaporizing relationship with Marin culminated in a dramatic poolside display, when she threw the ring Marin had given her into the water. He followed her into the changing rooms and she formally broke off the relationship that day. Within hours, nude photos and a private video of Manaudou had appeared on the internet. To add insult to injury, Marin began dating Federica Pellegrini-a swimmer who now trains with Manaudou’s former coach.

If the tryst seems immature, it should, for immaturity is a sign that Manadou was acting her age, unlike some cold machine, like Phelps, who purports an existence void of humanity and probably lives one too.

In 2008, after being a brutally beaten by Pellegrini-who stole Manaudou’s world record in her own event-Manaudou is considering quitting. “I’m asking myself if it’s worth continuing. I don’t even have the desire to swim anymore,” Manaudou told France-2 television Tuesday after placing seventh in the 100-meter backstroke. “It’s tough finishing seventh or eighth.”La SirŠn de la France has become nothing more than a fish flopping on the carpet, and I cannot help but think of how characteristically French (that is to say “tragic,” in the classical sense of the word) the whole ordeal seems. With not much left to her name but an outdated world record and a sex-tape, shoving her head in the sand seems like the only option.

The Olympics are just life, expedited and elevated. Youth, beauty, and grace are valued above wisdom and sagesse. Stars are born and die within a twelve year period. Phelps’ sweep, thus far, of 9 medals is perfectly indicative of fat American gluttony. All eat, no flavor. Manaudou’s story is the tragic, where Phelps is the melodrama. He totes himself on par with Mark Spitz, but how can he when his face repeatedly pops up in that repulsive Visa commercial? Phelps doesn’t have to live a life outside of swimming, and chooses not to. When faced with the prospect pummeling Pellegrini in the pool, Laure failed. Tried as she did, she could not swim fast enough, hard enough, to redeem herself.
How like life.

Jens Tamang ’11 is a biweekly columnist for the Mac Weekly and can be reached at [email protected]