On Culture

Robin Givhan on Culture: Ricky Berens's Butt -- Too Much for Us to Bear?

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, August 2, 2009

During the world championships in Rome last Sunday, American swimmer Ricky Berens bent over to stretch before diving into the pool and ripped his swim unitard. Berens was a bit abashed by what happened, but because he is a dedicated athlete and a loyal team member, he swam anyway, helping his relay brethren make the finals and ultimately take first place.

The resulting photographs of Berens's dive into the pool are quite eye-catching. One shows him, with his beautifully muscled shoulders -- light glinting off his sturdy tush -- poised to break through the water like an elegant and potent torpedo. The rip in his skintight black suit runs from the middle of his back all the way down to the bottom of his bottom. The tear exposes a significant portion of Berens's backside anatomy. Suffice it to say that the rear end of a championship swimmer is a magnificent example of how glorious the human body can be. In an era when so many of this country's backsides have gone wide, flat and flabby from too much couch-sitting and cupcake-eating, the Berens buttocks were a visual rebuke of Americans' deep-fried bad habits.

There was nothing naughty or unseemly about that flash of rear, which can be seen on blogs far and wide. But still, this newspaper could not show it to you. No, The Washington Post could not be responsible for what might happen if you saw the sheer magnificence of an Olympic-class derriere. The glory of it might overwhelm you. You might go blind.

Calling it "sexual" doesn't even begin to capture what's so transfixing. Looking at images of Berens's splendid start of the 4x100-meter freestyle relay was a bit like watching a live-action version of Michelangelo's David dive into a pool. Just extraordinary. Honest. We solemnly swear.

When Berens bared his rear, he was wearing one of the bodysuits that swimming's governing body, FINA, has just banned following the world championships. The suits, when they are not malfunctioning, essentially cover the athletes from neck to ankles, help them move even more hydrodynamically through the water and provide extra buoyancy. From a competitive standpoint this raises all sorts of issues about fairness and precisely what it means when an athlete declares a race his personal best. Those are questions for the sports pages.

But from an aesthetic perspective, we applaud the unitard's demise. They had the effect of making the swimmers look like cartoonish superheroes, genetically modified inhabitants of Gattaca or technologically enhanced cyborgs. The beauty of swimming, however, is that it's the rare sport that celebrates the body as both classically beautiful -- muscular, balanced, elegant -- and powerful.

For all that the unitards did for the athlete's performance, they covered the swimmers up and made them look less like the incredible human beings that they are and more like machines assembled from the best that technology has to offer. Unlike so many other sports -- aside from, say, track -- swimming speaks to the capacity of the human body for pure physical excellence. Pads, gloves and helmets aren't necessary because the sport isn't about how much assault the body can endure -- not in the manner of a football player or a boxer. Physical suffering, as dealt by a competitor, isn't a subtext to the sport. And there aren't all sorts of required accouterments, so that in some ways the success of the athlete is really based on his ability to finesse a racket, a ball, a bike or a bat.

There's a purity to swimming that reveals itself even in neighborhood pools where amateurs can be accomplished enough to glide through the water, barely creating a ripple. Such a beautiful sight. There is an elegance and a simplicity to the sport that honors the human body in full -- not just one part of it -- and what it can do all the way into old age without fancy gadgets or elaborate costuming.

The rise of the unitards changed that. The swimmers were still stunning and their skill had only improved, but there was this golly-gee-whiz technology. This new tool made the swimmers faster, but it distracted the casual observer from what made swimming a sport like no other. The body was too covered up and that was too bad.

Understand that this is not about a desire to ogle men -- or women -- with V-shaped torsos and abdominal muscles of steel and strong legs. A lot of the most accomplished swimmers with the most outstanding physiques aren't especially sexy. That's a quality that requires much more than an admirable physique. It depends on personality and confidence and an indefinable something. More than any other athlete, though, swimmers have the kind of body that most folks covet. They are classical Greek and Roman sculpture made real. Vitruvian Man doing the breast stroke. They are inspiration.

Swimmers have the kinds of physiques that at once seem impossibly perfect and yet vaguely attainable. They do not have the bodies of basketball players or gymnasts, that through quirks of genetics are especially tall or diminutive. They don't have the outsize physiques of football players and bodybuilders; they don't have to have a custom tailor on speed dial.

Instead, swimmers have the kind of build that average folks think just might be possible for them to hone if only they got that personal trainer, laid off the carbs and focused, focused, focused. A pipe dream, of course.

But those unitards, those superhero get-ups, distorted the relationship between the ideal and the dreamer. The suits made the swimmers seem like any other athlete: a product of relentless work, yes, but also of technology, secret potions and unfair advantage.

When Berens's suit tore, it was a bit like the technology was ripped away and he had to rely on nothing but his body. And it was amazing to see what such an extraordinary human body could do.

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