An Eye Is Upon You - 216: The Shoulders of Giants

Published: 17 September, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 216, September, 2012

I’m not much of a sports fan, but it’s been pretty hard to avoid the Olympics this summer.

Luckily, along with the competitive spirit, the gritty determination and the new records there has been something on display that does pique my interest… the incredible physical form of the Olympians. These impressive bodies, uniquely tailored for excellence in each individual discipline have certainly livened up the games. Call me shallow if you will, but I prefer to think of my interest as an historically appropriate academic pursuit. After all, the figures and forms of the original Ancient Greek athletes were so admired that they were closely studied and reproduced by the artists of the day, carved into glorious statues of bronze and marble, statues that transformed the perfect muscular structure of the athletes into monolithic sculpted masterpieces depicting their extreme strength and ultimate grace of movement.

If, despite my desperate attempt at high brow historical justification you still think I’m just a bit of a pervert, consider that the ancient Greek athletes competed whilst totally naked, ostensibly to pay homage to Zeus, King of Gods – dedicating to him the arduous task of attaining peak fitness and aesthetic perfection, but presumably, really to impress and titillate the many spectators who visited the games then as today.

Now we get our fix of athletic nudity post games in glossy magazines and coffee table tomes, while our athletes wear scientifically devised and company sponsored outfits when competing. Interestingly, modern day competitors accessorise their sporting uniforms with something far more interesting; tattoos.
London 2012 has surely been the most tattooed Olympics in the history of the games, and the tattoos on display have ranged from tiny single designs to full sleeves, many of which are dedications to the sporting discipline of the wearer.

Art for arts sake tattoos, while often the most aesthetically arresting aren’t nearly as common as those tattoos that mean something, after all, to mark occasions, events and life experiences with equivalent marks on the body is almost instinctual; to do so connects our modern western selves with the primal practices of the past, and acknowledges that our humanity is shared with the tribal peoples of the present. These memento tattoos, whether they celebrate those that we love and care for or define the things that we believe make us uniquely us, are the tattoos of which we are most fond.

Perhaps the most popular of all memento tattoos are those that denote our survivals and successes, and such tattoos are a perfect example of basic human psychology. When a child achieves something and feels pride they will instinctively look up to see who is watching. If there is something of which they are ashamed, failure, perhaps, they will attempt to hide it. And yet despite these natural attempts at concealment, the emotion that many of us can recall most strongly is shame. I can remember with almost perfect clarity a day in primary school when I was unable to recite the alphabet, how my face felt hot and tight, how I couldn’t tell my mum what happened. I still haven’t forgotten it 30 years later yet I have no equivalent memories of moments of pride. No wonder then, that we etch triggers for happy memories and tributes to our achievements on our bodies. We do it in celebration for our inner children, as reminders for our future selves and in demonstration of pride to those that may be watching.

Which brings me back to the Olympians… out on a worldwide stage, dressed in the colours of their mother countries, their bodies, triumphs and failures are scrutinised publicly by the media and privately by their coaches. But their tattoos remind us (and them) of their humanity, of their pride and of their love and dedication to the sports that captivate them, ranging from archers to wrestlers, from Mongolia to the UK.

Ti’erra Brown, US hurdler, wears winged feet on her hip; Samoan weightlifter Ele Opeloge has a traditional Malu covering her hands and thighs; and beach volleyballer, Alison Cerutti of Brazil wears a black and grey wooly mammoth, a reference to his nickname. Many competitors marked their appearance at the games with permanent depictions of those famous interlocking rings – Australian diver, Melissa Wu’s are heart shaped. Even 18-year-old Brit, Tom Daley, celebrated his bronze medal win with his first tattoo, a gift from his mother.

So while I’m still not a sports fan, I did fall in love with the Olympics just a little in 2012. And I certainly found a new respect for the permanent narrative mark of the memento and what it really means to wear your heart on your sleeve.


Text: Paula Hardy-Kangelos