… An essay full of unanswered questions
A celebration of the best in human achievement. This is what the Olympic Games aspire to. Such aspiration should also be a celebration of beauty. But, are we aware of it? Can we see beauty in the Olympics?
Of course, we have the athletes. Theirs are the most beautiful and diverse bodies.
Credit: Andy Miah
These extraordinary bodies move to the top of human ability and are captured millionfold by the best technologies in the world. Billions of pictures and film produced at each Games edition, shared instantly and devoured across the globe.
But, are they beautiful, these pictures?
What is the angle that matters? Is it about the Games logo? Is it about creating icons?
What is iconic at the Games? Is beauty iconic? Is the iconic shot, beauty?
The athlete moves around and performs within a venue. Are these venues beautiful? They must be sustainable. And accessible. And secure. They must be serviceable to a multiplicity of stakeholders – the media, the sponsors, the VIPs, the police… and the public. But… do they provide a beautiful experience?
Beijing 2008: Bird’s Nest
An effort to impress, on the outside, has resulted in some ‘starchitect’ temples to sport – Beijing’s Birds Nest, London’s Aquatic Centre… Then we have the many temporary, adaptable sites. How beautiful are they? Are they also beautiful inside? Who notices?
The Olympic Park is a site of wonder. A sense of awe captures the imagination upon entering it the first time. So goes the saying. The awe is certainly there, still, at Ancient Olympia in Greece, under the athlete’s arch as much as on the way to the slopes where spectators used to seat in ancient times.
How is this reflected in 21st century sites? And who has the chance to experience such awe? The massive crowds, arriving in chock-a-block trains, shoved from one queue to the next? The media, in their efficient shuttles, moving from one back (scaffolded) door to the next? The VIPs, also circuiting sites through a myriad secret doors, mostly temporary (labyrinthic) concoctions, a miracle of short-term engineering?
And what about the athletes? Do they have their chance at awe? At really admiring the beauty of place? Do they have the time… and the inclination? Can they engage in beauty at their venues, or at their village?
Now, what about the attire? What is beautiful about it? We call it ‘uniform’. And there are many types. For athletes and their delegations. For staff. For volunteers. Also for the fans, who tend to follow a range of dressing codes.
Volunteers in Rio 2016. Bright yellow and green have taken over Rio
Volunteers in Mexico 1968 (credit: IOC archives).
A time when Op-art could take over a town…
How beautifully dressed are we? Does it matter?
Does it bring us pleasure to see such and such colours,
such and such patterns repeated to infinity?
Because yes, they are repeated. And they mirror as well as repel each other. These colours and patterns, they go from your volunteer T-Shirt to the venue wall and then on to the directions-sign hanging on that pole. And to the shop. And to the train. And on to this and that brochure and of course right through every digital ‘app’.
So… how are we all dressed? The city, itself, how is it dressed? Is it a beautiful dress?
How is the Olympic mania inflected on the streets? What is different? How are moods shaped and teased and smoothed? How are we informed and entertained? How is this bath of colour and promotion bringing beauty?
… Is it?
Beauty, in the Olympic city, as in any hyper-staged environment of our times, is an often ignored – certainly, not discussed – topic. As if it were not actually relevant. Or not actually the point.
We are having a party. Making super-human efforts to host an ‘unnecessary’ event – just for the love of sport (or of business opportunity) it represents. It is about pleasure and showcase. It is about inspiration. So… should it not also be about beauty?
… About how beautiful sport is, and how beautiful human beings are – at their best, while performing as well as while observing, enraptured?
… About how beautiful the city is, the city that welcomes everyone and makes the mega-party possible?
… About how beautiful international encounters are, when we are forced into surprise and misunderstanding, forced out of our comfort zones, forced to engage with and address ‘others’ – visitors, guests – on a large scale, simultaneously, en mass?
Yes, the Olympics should be about beauty. And they should have a ‘Beauty’ functional area as they have it for ‘Engagement’, for ‘Security’, for ‘Education’ and for ‘Sustainability’. Venues and dresses, information angles and promotional tone should all be passed through the test of Beauty.
Is this beautiful enough? Will we remember to enjoy the beauty?
Let’s ask ourselves, then: how should we deal with the excess? The cacophony? The mess of cables and scaffolds? The endless waste? The queues? The megaphones?
Barcelona had a hilltop pool making athletes dive into its skyline.
Sydney had a harbour at its heart and brought all athletes there to party.
London had wild flowers in the park and artists shaping venue corners.
Rio has sandy beaches and wavy hills as sport’s most dominant backdrop.
London 2012 Olympic Park bloomed with wild flowers following patterns that shaped previous buildings in the area. The concept was created by a local arts collective
The Dos Irmaos hill watches over all runners in Rio’s Copacabana
Every Olympic city has beauty. Some have made it hard to discover during Games time – too much gigantism, too much noise. Many have made it possible to see, but only after some careful Olympic-soul searching.
So, let’s make some demands. Let’s grow expectations when it comes to beauty. Let’s make beauty a sensible requirement when it comes to the Olympic experience. Why should this be so hard? Why should it be secondary?
A city full of beautiful people and beautiful moments should look beautiful first and foremost. Let’s make sure the noise and endless distractions that tag along any massive, collective gathering do not overshadow its actual value and meaning.
Make the Olympic Games more beautiful, and they will also be more meaningful, more memorable and, ultimately, more true to their values and raison d’être.