Disability Studies

Olympics & Embodiment

There’s something unsettling for me about watching the Olympics. You know, aside from the national inequities, uninteresting/strange/racist events & peoples that US broadcasting highlights, and incredibly frustrating time delays.

I’m uncomfortable with the intense focus on the human body.

I’ve been looking forward to the London Olympic games, so when I started watching the opening ceremony last night, I was confused. I wasn’t as excited as I expected. I was nauseated.

During the 2008 summer Olympics, my family was wandering around Montana & Wyoming on a family vacation. More specifically, we were on our last family vacation with my mom. She had just finished 3 years and 50+ rounds of chemo and was prepared for radiation in the fall. Glimpses of the amazing testaments of the human body—men’s swimming, women’s gymnastics, track & field—were countered with my mom’s struggles to sit in the car for too long, to walk the paths leading to Yellowstone’s spectacular thermal pools.

As I’m watching these current Olympic games, the bodies of the athletes—the way they move & bend in ways that are truly amazing—remind me of the deterioration of my mom’s body this time 4 years ago.

Those bodies also remind me of how we value particular bodies. In this case: strong, healthy, able. Everything in the Olympic games is so high stakes that a single malfunction of the human body is a blight. It is something that marks not only that individual but also that individual’s team, and, more dramatically, that individual’s country. The sprained ankles, bleeding elbows, (temporarily or permanently) disabled athletes become a representation of their country, a black eye of their nation-state.

Sometimes, however, those disabling injuries are tied to celebration. I think here of Kerri Strug who broke her ankle but still won the gold medal in 1996. It was okay that Strug’s body faltered because she overcame that injury and the US team took home the gold. And, of course, there are many similar stories.

The overcoming narrative is also evident when athletes are interviewed about how their injuries affect their performances (e.g. “It doesn’t matter that it hurt; this is the Olympics.”) and in the many bruised and bandaged body parts seen throughout different events. It is evident in any back story where the video is blurred and dramatic music plays while we learn about such-and-such teen who broke both her legs, worked every day to recover, and is now swimming in a relay.

And when that overcoming narrative fails, like the Swiss cyclist who crashed recently, that person is blamed. Reflecting on it later, the camera focused on the man crying into his coach’s arms, a TV reporter said that the crash was “his own fault.” He just took the turn faster than he should have. When the body fails and that person can’t pull through it, that Olympic-sculpted body—a grossly unattainable body for most—is a failure.

Although the Olympics remind me of my mother’s death and of society’s (dis)associations with able/disabled bodies, I like watching them. I like seeing what people can do with their bodies that I never expected possible. Yet despite the fact that I can’t seem to tear myself away from the games, I refuse to watch passively. I recently finished Tanya Titchkosky’s Reading & Writing Disability Differently: The Textured Life of Embodiment (more on that to come!) and can’t help but think of her mission:

How to notice, read, and write disability otherwise than the dominant modalities of daily life would have us encounter disability, is my aim. 9

For me, “disability” can be exchanged with “ability” here. NBC will stream the Olympics hour after hour until these acts of physical ability become more ordinary & naturalized for viewers who become more immersed within the events. Paying attention to how media portrays and “writes” the ability of these bodies can give us insight into how different cultures value different bodies, how ability plays such a prominent role in success, and why we are so nationally fascinated with the most physically able bodies the world has to offer.


2 thoughts on “Olympics & Embodiment

  1. And in London in particular the intense focus on the body is coming at a time of disastrous cuts to social services and disability services. There was a neoliberal “inclusion” of disabled people in the opening ceremonies that worked to mask the ways in which austerity politics more generally in Cameron’s UK specifically *targets* disabled people. For that reason, I really love the photo from the Counter Olympics Protest held on Saturday which has DPAC (Disabled People Against the Cuts) at the front of the march:

    Robert McRuer

    1. Thanks for sharing your insight, Dr. McRuer. I’m a big fan of your work! I know a few people who were quite pleased about the inclusion of (particularly) deaf people in the opening ceremony, but I was unaware of the cuts that were behind that (temporary) inclusion.

      I appreciate the link you shared, too. I wasn’t familiar with this counter-olympics group and the work they’re doing, and their photos & videos are great!

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