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Sex and Sport

By Edmund Connolly, on 28 September 2012


The Petrie Museum’s Fit Bodies Exhibition on display in the Museum and North Cloisters is drawing to a close (in the Cloisters space) and, whilst I will be happy to get my trusty wooden lacrosse stick back, I am sad this exhibition is ending. Fit Bodies has included a variety of elements, from photographic competitions to theatrical performances in a light-hearted take on the notion of ‘fit’, an adjective accredited to sporting prowess as well as sexual appeal. However, one notion I realised only after giving a seminar on the exhibition, was this expectation of the elite to be attractive, in particular I think of the recent sportsmen and women who have proved their value through trial, tribulation, yet are still presented on that sordid platter of sexuality.


copyright telegraph.co.uk

Considering athletes such as Victoria Pendleton and Tom Daley why are images such as these (links below) required?

Victoria Pendleton

Tom Daley


These two young Brits have proved their sporting abilities and triumphed, yet why is there this need for a quasi-erotic element? Daley’s shoot in no way presents him as a young diver. Likewise, Pendleton has no pressing requirements to be naked on a bike. Despite the glaring impracticalities of this, such a shoot serves not other purpose than to transform a woman of stalwart sporting prowess into a sexualised image. There is no need for her to be naked, we all get the concept of person on bike ergo person ride bike, so is this nudity needed for some other reason?

When offering these types of suggestion to my class of 18 year old’s there was a rather noticeable divide in the group: half felt it was a way of making the sporting hero even stronger: to add sexual attraction as well as admiration for sport to their armada, whereas others (an ex-gymnast in particular) credited this look solely to a cheap marketing ploy to generate sponsorship, in that timeless consideration: ‘Sex Sells’. Sport is a way for the body to be manipulated, to be the best at a certain discipline or skill, thus could always lead to an element of ‘attractiveness’? That is; to be a good sprinter you have to have strong hamstrings, an exact BFI and good technique, but to be the best one needs to be popular, to be a hero; one needs that attraction to appeal to the masses.

Consider King Senusret I, the ‘logo’ for the Fit Bodies exhibition, running the Sed festival. He is hardly the sweating man perspiring under the baking Egyptian sun (as a keen sportsman I openly admit to not looking anywhere near as collected when running anything over 10 miles, let alone having to do it in a loin cloth). Sensuret is refined, he is impeccably dressed, his loin cloth splitting, but keeping him decent; we can presume he is not doing it for some sponsorship, but I think it is something else: people care about what people look like, and he needs his people to like him. After having many lively debates and conversations around our notion of the body this has become apparent. What differs is what we (by we I guess I mean a general person) like. This sexualised lens that the sporting heroes are forced into is not rare, as Dr Debbie Challis has suggested even politicians of a certain stature and look are preferred, all public figures have to have appeal, and sex appeal is, arguably, one of the most universal.

King Senusret’s relief is of this propaganda ilk: he is a strong figure, striding calmly towards the erect phallus of Min, impassive as he proves his physical worth in the Sed festival. He does not need to be attractive to be a good sprinter, but he is also being a hero and a leader. He is being appealing to his people, a figurehead they can follow and admire, and we are drawn to that which is appeals. We can question whether this is a shallow or very vapid mode of thought, but it certainly seems the case these opinions have not much changed. We like attractiveness in many forms, be it intellectual ability, personality or looks, but the notion of physical attraction,  which can bean idealised sexual, or idealised sporting strata, is ancient and an intrinsic part of our social network.


UPDATE: 28/9/12 11.34 am. I have also unearthed this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bws52wtv6Ts whilst a rather jovial take on LMFAO’s #1 Hit (a personal favourtie for in the gym I might also add), interesting to note Daley’s publicity stunt, prior to this sumemr’s activities, relates more to his sexual image, than his sport.


3 Responses to “Sex and Sport”

  • 1
    Dave Lightbody wrote on 28 September 2012:

    Interesting and useful article. I like discussions challenging concepts like this that compare modern attitudes to ancient ones. On the other hand I can’t see anything ‘sordid’ about these pictures even if they are revealing. In my opinion the reason they were published across the board in the media was partly to generate publicity for the London Olympics but mostly for the Tories and British nationalists who were running the show. They were not celebrating olympians per se, they were promoting British Olympians and old school elitism only. The Greeks and Nazis were very interested in this kind of presentation of the human body. It is propaganda!

  • 2
    Jan Picton wrote on 28 September 2012:

    ‘Sordid’ may have been an oddly prim choice of expression but I don’t see how you can see images like these as anything BUT sexually exploitative – the only defence is at least it’s across gender! I can’t remember any other Olympics that put such weight on not just physical ability but on the sexual attractiveness of the competitors.

  • 3
    Edmund Connolly wrote on 28 September 2012:

    I find it interesting that such a massive sporting event should need to harvest sexual attraction, surely being the best in the world at an event should be enough?

    With regards to ‘sordid’ I did apply the adjective a tad flippantly, I should say ‘which is over considered sordid’ or ‘may seem sordid’. I’m not wholly against this sexualising; it seems a necessary tactic to garner public favour.


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