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Padraic P. McGuinness, “Let them swim nude,”
The Australian Financial Review, September 16, 1988, pp. 92-91.

Probably the most sensible suggestion concerning the Olympic Games and the controversy over the Australian-designed swimming costume has come from the designer of the costume himself.

Why not revert to the original Olympic tradition, and have the swimmers and other competitors performing in the nude?

We are long past the stage where there is some kind of lubricious shock attached to seeing a naked human being — there are beaches (and even parks) in nearly every country where nude bodies can be seen disporting themselves, like Childe Harold, like any other fly in the noonday sun, as God made them.

And it is clear that the greatest problem facing all sporting competitions is precisely the unnatural additions which are being made to them. If a swimming costume design can make a difference to the performance of swimmers, then surely it is better to discard swimming costumes.

For it is clear that athletic competitions are about nothing more than the striving of human beings without artificial aids of any kind. External accoutrements are no more relevant than the design of sailing ship keels is to skill in sailing. In the case of direct rivalry between human bodies, it is clear that the major problem is the use of artificial stimulants and growth hormones.

Effectively, if we are to return to the original Olympic spirit we need to think in terms of human bodies in direct competition without any drug use or any special equipment.

In the case of sports that do require special equipment, such as archery or cycling or shooting, there is a strong case to be made for standardised equipment, so that competitors are provided by the Games authorities with the apparatus, and special designs like the East German light bicycle wheels are ruled out.

Indeed, there is a case for rethinking the whole concept of the Olympic Games in other terms. We are now faced with the unedifying prospect of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane putting in rival bids to host the 1996 Olympics. From the original concept the Olympics have become a kind of international expo competition, whereby the city chosen spends enormous amounts of money in the hope of generating tourism revenue and permanent investments sufficient to justify this. The Olympics have become a race between civic profligacy and private sector entrepreneurial skills.

In principle, there is no case for the 1996 Olympics being held in any other country except Greece, since that will be the centenary of the resuscitation of the Olympic tradition. There might be an even better case for making 1996 the year of abandonment of the Olympics — the gesture towards non-political sporting rivalry they represented nearly 100 years ago has turned out to be a very sick joke in the 20th century. But that is too much to hope for.

Sport has become […] political […] establishment of bodies like the Australian Institute of Sport has, predictably, created not superior performance by our athletes but a new and unpleasant power structure.

Short of abolishing the Olympics, the best alternative would be to abandon the increasingly wasteful and absurd rivalry of the various countries and cities of the world and settle for a permanent home for the Games — which obviously ought to be in Greece.

The major obstacles to this spring from the Greek Government, which is not noted for its efficiency in cleaning up the environs of Athens, or even the protection of the remaining unplundered relics of the classical past. Moreover, the security arrangements of Athens airport obviously leave a great deal to be desired, and this is clearly a major consideration in the minds of the International Olympic Committee.

Nevertheless, it would be timely to look forward to 1996 as the year in which the Olympic Games, if they are to survive at all, could return to a permanent home in Greece, and it would be appropriate also for the other countries of the world to invest substantial sums in the building of permanent facilities there.

But more important is the issue of whether the Olympics have a future at all. If the Greek Government and the Olympic committee could get their act together, there might be a case for such a future. But failing that, which is the most probable outcome, we really should consider whether there is a point in an athletics competition that increasingly must become either harmful or futile.

Futile, because in many sports the limits of possible unaided human endurance cannot be much farther out. Physiologists have occasionally tried to calculate, for example, what the maximum possible distance for a human long jump might be. Clearly, there is a limit to the strength of muscles, and the strength of bone structures on which those muscles depend.

It may be that we will soon reach a limit at which performance can only be improved by freaks or athletes subjected to artificial interference with their bodies.

That this is happening already is clear from the accumulating evidence of the misuse of steroids.

Even without drug use, more and more athletes and their imitators are doing themselves serious injuries in their search for higher and higher levels of performance.

But there is another harmful perversion of the sporting world taking place. This is the commercialisation of sporting reputations.

One harmful aspect of this is the use of famous sportsmen and women as the advocates of various products which themselves are inimical both to general health and sporting prowess — tobacco and alcohol advertising being just the two most obvious examples.

Another is the influence that this commercialisation has on the public discussion of sport and sporting organisations. When a sportsman can look forward to a large income on the basis of his prowess and fame, then it is clear that critical comment, however justified, can be seen as adversely affecting this.

Thus it has become increasingly common for our highly defective defamation laws to be employed by sporting figures to prevent honestly critical discussion of their performance, and especially critical comment that suggests they might be subordinating the ideals of fairness and sporting behaviour to crass commercial considerations — including the gate takings.

A little bit more transparency in the whole business of sport is therefore desirable, and above all, a return to the only point of sporting activity — the competitive striving of human beings for physical excellence, not just results.

Sport has never, of course, been completely pure, or without risk, as the many classical stories of fights in the original Olympics taken to the point of death witness.

But if expensively designed and artfully constructed swimming costumes can become a factor in the performance of competitive swimmers, it is clearly time to take them off entirely, and compete naked and unashamed as did the original Olympic athletes.

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