If aliens were to intercept media coverage of the upcoming Olympic games, they could easily get the impression that it's a competition not in gymnastics, swimming, or track, but rather in sex.
When gay hookup app Grindr crashed this week, The Sun blamed it on the arrival of sex-crazed Olympians in London. For the past two weeks, news outlets have been creatively repackaging an ESPN article -- in the yearly body issue, which features nude Olympians -- about all the sexy times that are typically had in the Olympic Village. The past decade of Olympic games have brought feverish reports on the numbers of condoms supplied to athletes, trainers and officials -- for example, 90,000 in Sydney; 100,000 in Salt Lake City, Beijing and Vancouver (where there were reports that more had to be shipped in); and 150,000 this year in London. The latest tally led the Daily Mail to speculate that it would be “the raunchiest games ever” in an article headlined, “The oh, oh, Ohhh-lympics!”
What’s with the Olympian sex obsession?
That might seem a rhetorical question: The most obvious answer is that Olympians are in peak physical condition. They are paragons of the extreme possibilities of the human body and the ultimate expression of strength, agility and grace. It's a parade of tight stomachs and bulging muscles adorned in skin-tight Speedos and unitards that leave very little to the imagination. For some of us, there is undoubtedly the added frisson that Olympians are reminiscent of the jocks who tormented us in high school -- they are the hot, popular kids that we could never be.
“There’s always been an anxiety about the Olympics and sex,” says social scientist Toby Miller, author of "Sportsex." Miller points to the fact that during the ancient games, “virginal women” weren’t allowed to watch because the men competed nude. “We’ve seen a long, slow process of the sexualization of the sport and body over a lengthy period. There have been many attempts to slow down that process,” he says, “but male and female bodies are very much up for sale.” Sexualizing athletes’ bodies, particularly male athletes’ bodies, is “the last frontier for advertising,” he says, pointing to quarterback Joe Namath advertising panty hose in 1974.
David Potter, a classics professor at the University of Michigan, compares the current sexual fascination with Olympians to the erotic allure of Roman gladiators. Both males and female gladiators were dressed “very scantily” and were “highly sexualized,” he says, and the women had “at least one breast exposed.” Tales abounded of “wealthy Roman girls running off with gladiators,” he continues. “They weren’t locked up for the night. There were all kinds of bars where you could go meet your favorite gladiator.”
In addition to representing physical perfection, though, modern Olympians also exemplify dedication and discipline. Perhaps there is something satisfying in reading about such self-restrained athletes giving in to sexual pleasure. What better way to humanize our Olympians: They're subject to carnal urges just like us. And how gratifying to think that even they have a thirst for no-commitment Grindr sex!
Miller sees sexual analogies in the competitions themselves. “If you think about, say, the 100-meter swim or the 100-meter track, you see these extraordinary bodies in obvious pain, every muscle kind of bursting, and then when they win, there’s this sort of orgasmic burst of pleasure,” he says. “There’s something about that that obviously connects in certain ways to making love.”
Of course, all this psychoanalysis aside, it might also be true that the reports of the Olympic Village orgy are true. As water polo captain Tony Azevedo explained in the ESPN article, “It's like the first day of college. You're nervous, super excited. Everyone's meeting people and trying to hook up with someone." Miller thinks of it as “the biggest sorority-frat-party mashup in history.” He says, “Where else can you put high-achieving national representatives together in what might be the most exciting moment of their lives? It’s a multi-thousand person fortnight-long frat party.”
It’s always been that way, says Potter, even during the ancient games -- only then it was largely a same-sex affair. “There were a lot of young men in one place,” he says. “And it was pretty much accepted that they would have relationships with each other.” Even back then, athletes “tended to be kept in much more separate areas,” much like in the Olympic Village now. “We also have a lot of cases where the coach has a [sexual] relationship with the athlete,” he says. “These are people with very close-knit relationships established over many years. There’s this sense in classical culture that a physical relationship isn’t out of the question under those circumstances.”
It's possible -- maybe -- that the London Olympics will be "the raunchiest games ever," but let's remember: It's been sexy since forever.