RA Magazine Summer 2012
Issue Number: 115
Review & Comment: Books: 'Olympic Visions' by Mike O’Mahony
If you want the best views of the Olympic Games, turn to a new book on art and the Olympics in history, writes Edmund Fawcett
René Vincent, 'Tennis with Mademoiselle Suzanne Lenglen', 1921. Among the many things that art cannot teach us is discus throwing. Early in his fine and entertaining study of the Olympic Games in art and imagery, Mike O’Mahony tells an instructive story. At the first modern Olympics at Athens in 1896, the favourites in the discus competition were the Greeks. A Greek reinvention from the classical past, the event was new to athletics. As a technical guide, Greek discus throwers studied the poses of ancient athletes on painted vases. They admired and strained to replicate the pose of Myron’s Discobolus, the fifth-century Athenian sculpture widely known in Roman copies. They imitated art, and they lost.
The winner of the discus-throwing competition at Athens in 1896 was an American, Robert Garrett. He handled the discus, tried out a few positions and came up with a low, coiled squat. It looked graceless and unpromising but when released in a sudden, powerful swirl produced easily the best throws. Pose might matter to viewers. Posture was what mattered in performance.
Obvious as it might sound, what Olympic athletes are doing and how they look to us while doing it are not the same thing, and O’Mahony, a lecturer in art history at the University of Bristol, skillfully exploits the difference. Unless you are one of the maybe one in 10,000 humans with the talent and training to perform at top level in athletics, your experience of the Olympics will be through how they look. How they look, however, is not straightforward.
Many of the events happen so quickly, the eye can barely take them in. The 100-metres dash lasts scarcely longer than the love life of a fruit fly. The most graceful dive ends almost before it has begun in a plop and a little splash. How much easier is it for us to fix in our minds an image, say, of the sprinter, Ben Johnson, finger aloft in victory, as he crossed the line in the men’s 100-metres at Seoul in 1988; or Marshall Wayne, an American diver, outlined like a plane against cloud, in a still from Leni Riefenstahl’s film, Olympia, of the Berlin Games in 1936.
The moving image brings us closer to the action in film and on television, but only up to a point. The billions who will watch the London Olympics on TV will see the Games in highly edited form. That was always so, starting with the handful who saw a snippet of hand-cranked film of the 1906 high jump. In that connection, O’Mahony nicely contrasts the mythologising work of Riefenstahl, a brilliant celebrant of Hitler’s Third Reich, with the humane Tokyo Olympiad, Kon Ichikawa’s film record of the Tokyo Olympics of 1964. Riefenstahl turned athletics into abstract play. The competitive and human aspects dropped out. She fused, O’Mahony tells us, classical past and fascist present in a formalised spectacle. By contrast Ichikawa closed in on the faces of nervous contestants, showing relief or disappointment.
Another intriguing chapter examines how the look of women athletes at the Olympics has changed. There were no women at the first Games in 1896. Pierre de Coubertin, the Olympic’s modern revivalist, thought athletics unsuitable for women. Their place, he ruled, was as spectators. That was an advance of sorts on the classic Games. At ancient Olympia, legend has it, women found watching the Games were thrown from a nearby cliff. Coubertin also tried to keep women out at the 1897 Games in Paris. The French hosts simply ignored him.
To begin with women competed in limb-concealing garments. The tennis players were the first to free themselves. At Antwerp in 1920, Suzanne Lenglen (left), a French gold medallist, wore a knee-length skirt that showed her suspender belt when she leapt for a smash. People quickly got over the shock, and women’s sportswear grew ever simpler and freer. The first change of look had occurred.
Another change was in the physique of women athletes. Round and supple but underpowered to start with, they become in O’Mahony’s later images, a model of honed athletic strength. A stunning photograph of Jessica Ennis, a heptathlete, shows a hard-working body of svelte, muscled efficiency. Her gaze, sharp as an arrow, seems fixed on the winning line.
O’Mahony, who wrote an earlier fine book, Sport in the USSR: Physical Culture – Visual Culture (Reaktion, 2006) has a chapter here on the Russians, who joined the modern Olympics only in 1952 once Stalin, he tells us, could count on Soviet medals. He also covers ‘transgressions’, including Ben Johnson’s steroids, which cost him his gold, as well as the regular political squabbles among world powers over Games intended to promote peace. He ends with design and artwork for Olympic publicity. Olympic Visions can be read as thoughtful reflections on a common theme or happily browsed while waiting for the television commentators to announce the results of the high jump.
- Olympic Visions: Images of the Games through History by Mike O’Mahony (£22, Reaktion)
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