Olympic Zen: the athletic body in 2012

They were first held in around 700 BC, in honor of the Greek god Zeus. Women and non-Greeks were banned. But, today, the Olympics is a global event, pitting the nation states against each other in a game of diplomatic, sporting chess. Uniforms, spectacle, and sponsorship matter as much as who wins and who loses in each event, and more than the metaphysical nature of such physical competition.
From a single-day event, comprised of athletics and wrestling, in 472 BC, the Olympics were expanded to five days, with sacrifices of oxen to Zeus becoming a significant part of the proceedings. Athletes themselves also frequently prayed and made personal sacrifices. The event was, then, as much a religious festival as a sporting one.

Aesthetics, action, and transcendence
A discus thrower — with slender, muscular body, looking back to the discus he is about to hurl — remains one of the most iconic images of the athletics, and of the Greek ideal of the male body, although we know of it only through Roman copies of a sculpture made by Myron of Eleutherae (480-440 BCE). Sir Kenneth Clark in The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form says that it embodies the, “enduring pattern of athletic energy.[…] a moment of action so transitory that students of athletics still debate if it is feasible.”

Clark’s emphasis on the sculptor’s capturing of the “transitory” itself brings up a religious and mystical, as well as an artistic, theme: that brief moment that we are normally completely unaware of, but which, if we become conscious of it, can open us to new and profound insights. French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) once described music as “the space between the notes.” The process of writing could be said to be an attempt to draw out what is not grasped at the beginning of the writing. But, then there is the esoteric aspect. Master Japanese archer Awa Kenzo (1880-1939) makes clear the relationship between archery — a warrior art that, like many Olympic events, became a sport over time — Zen, and the development of the whole man. He tells us that rationalization is often “your greatest enemy” and contrasts this with self-reflection, which “encourages great bravery.” He advises “utmost sincerity” in life and martial art. The archer, Master Kenzo says, must shoot with his character.

“The first principle,” he says, “is to awaken to oneself. Once that is realized you can accomplish anything with ease.” It is highly likely that, with its mixture of religious ritual, piety, sense of mysticism, and athletics and wrestling, the early Olympians saw their “sport” as something akin to Mater Kenzo’s archery: i.e., as a “Way” of glimpsing the gods and the self in those flickering instances between the conscious act of hurling a discuss, wrestling, and so on.

Lennox Lewis.
Lennox Lewis.

Still, we should not dismiss athletes and sportsman as unaware of higher ideals and ways of thinking. Heavyweight world champion boxer Lennox Lewis, for example, has long been an avid chess player, and viewed boxing as a form of chess. He has also promoted the traditional board game.
The Olympic image 2012

US Olympians with flag
Looking to the stars: US Olympians, 2012.

The ideal can, however, get smothered by the crass commercialism that tends to characterize global events. McDonalds — not exactly the food of athletes — is one of the sponsors of the London 2012 Olympics. Coke is another.

The lead-up to the event has seen more than one furor break out over the branding of the London Olympics. Its mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, are unpopular characters that can only be described as futuristic, cyclops Teletubbies. The logo, which looks like pieces of cut out paper, is abstract enough for Iran to have thought that it read “Zion” — they threatened to boycott the event.

In the US, the Ralph Lauren-designed American team outfits provoked uproar when it became known that they had been made in China. House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi said, bluntly, that US Olympians “should be wearing uniforms that are made in America,” while Republican, House Speaker John Boehner could say only that Ralph Lauren “should know better.”

Hurdler Michelle Jennekes
Hurdler Michelle Jennekes.

The use of woefully underpaid Chinese factory workers to produce the outfits of a national team, representing their country, and competing against others, exposes the degree of dependence that the US now has on China. The transference of jobs to the fast-growing Asian superpower was a decision of massive corporations that answer to faceless shareholders, not to local communities or employees.

While political opportunism, rather than real convictions may have motivated those who complained, the Ralph Lauren controversy is, nevertheless, one of the notion of man as an expendable economic unit versus the belief than man should be self-dependent, independent, and competitive. And, moreover, that he should play by the rules. In a certain sense, it is a controversy between modern economism and ancient, tribal, traditional, and metaphysical concepts — the ancient Olympic ideal.

Still, the controversy has overshadowed the real substance. The vast majority of clothing — including high-end fashion — is made in in China. If not, then it is almost certainly made in India or Pakistan. US politicians can create conditions that encourage production in the US, if they are truly surprised. As for Ralph Lauren’s designs, they are a rare reminder of dignity, pride, and style. Perfectly tailored, drawing on ceremonial military uniforms, and using white to the maximum, creating the impression of looking to the stars with the aim of getting there, the US outfits contrast sharply with the gaudy pink outfits of Britain’s Olympic volunteers.

The London Olympics will launch on Friday July 27, after the torch carrying ceremony has drawn to a close. For all the fuss about branding, attention has begun to turn to the athletes, as, indeed, should be the case. Australian Hurdler Michelle Jennekes has already become a Youtube hit with her hip-swinging warmup routine at the recent 2012 Barcelona Junior World Championships. This may not be the most elevated of reasons to take an interest, but at least it reminds us that, all in all, the Olympics is about the body as the embodiment of values peculiar to it, and those rare moments between the ordinary.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.

See also:
Militant feminine: vanguards of style.
Cheekbones: A brief history.
Fashion and the making of the global consumer.

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