Five-ring Circus

Olympians Are for Ogling

They’re the relatable-yet-godlike new kids in school.

 HEERENVEEN, NETHERLANDS - MARCH 23: Koen Verweij of The Netherlands celebrates by throwing his glasses into the crowd after winnning the overall standings during day two of the Essent ISU World Allround Speed Skating Championships at the Thialf Stadium on March 23, 2014 in Heerenveen, Netherlands. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Speedskater Koen Verweij, giving the people what they want.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images.

Every Olympic Games, a certain set of athletes receive an honor that, though it bears no medal, brings glory to their countries and boosts their earning power. They are dubbed the hot Olympians, the people whose faces and bods are just as captivating when they’re slouching on the sidelines as when they’re performing superhuman athletic feats.

The Pyeongchang Games have given us Koen Verweij, a Dutch speedskater with the flowing blond locks of an elfin prince and cheekbones he must certainly use to sharpen his blades. There’s 18-year-old Nathan Chen, a superstar U.S. figure skater equally famous for his quad-packed ice routines and his adorable boy-band looks. We’ve also got U.S. bobsledder Aja Evans, who kindly removed her bodysuit for a 2014 ESPN photoshoot of her extraterrestrial quads and hammies. And the two best-known gays of the games, figure skater Adam Rippon and skier Gus Kenworthy, are attracting thousands of drooling fans with their well-calculated scruff and perfect sets of teeth.

Compared to the Winter Olympics heartthrobs, the warm-weather Olympians have it easy. With the exception of those who do certain weird events like fencing, the athletes wear tiny running shorts, skin-tight jammers, and leotards. The finely tuned bodies that brought them to the world’s most celebrated athletic competition are totally exposed. During the last Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the men’s U.S. gymnastics team expressed interest in executing their events topless, without their customary singlets, tank tops, and T-shirts. They sensed, correctly, that more people would watch their sport if their nipples were out. “People make fun of us for wearing tights,” said Sam Mikulak, a two-time Olympian. “But if they saw how yoked we are maybe that would make a difference.”

United States Women's Bobsled team member Aja Evans poses for a portrait on the Today Show Set on February 15, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. (Photo by Marianna Massey/Getty Images)
United States Women’s Bobsled team member Aja Evans.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Marianna Massey/Getty Images.
United States Men's Figure Skater Adam Rippon poses for a portrait on the Today Show Set on February 17, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. (Photo by Marianna Massey/Getty Images)
United States Men’s Figure Skater Adam Rippon.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Marianna Massey/Getty Images.

But, even with his regulation uniform on, Mikulak was still able to hoist and flip himself around for the TV cameras with his delts, biceps, and bulging veins on display. Most winter Olympians have no such (glistening, impossibly muscular) leg up. They wear bulky coats and goggles that cover half their faces in addition to the windows to their souls. Their skin, if any happens to be exposed, is pasty, ashy, or dry. That’s nothing against them—it’s winter! The season of their celebrity makes the rise of the Pyeongchang hotties even more impressive.

As they populate lists of sexy athletes and spur investigations into their singledom, the Olympic dreamboats present one major question: Is it OK to watch the Olympics for the dimples instead of the feats of strength and speed, to talk about these human beings as if they were ice sculptures carved for our erotic fulfillment? Every viewer must grapple with her own ethics on this question, but my answer is an unequivocal yes.

Most other kinds of fame demand good looks before talent; a mediocre actress with angelic bone structure will usually score better roles than a brilliant actress with a merely above-average face. An Olympian, no matter how she looks, will never make it to the games unless she is the absolute best in her field. Pole vaulters Allison Stokke and Jenn Suhr provide an instructive example. The former has several major endorsement deals and 443,000 Instagram followers, but didn’t even qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials. Suhr is a gold medalist with 29,000 Instagram followers and a fraction of Stokke’s corporate sponsorships. Stokke is famous for being hot, but Suhr, a great-looking athlete with less of a model’s sensibility, is the one winning gold.

In other words, to applaud an Olympian’s aesthetic gifts is to gild an already extraordinary lily. A person competing in Pyeongchang cannot be reduced to a one-dimensional object, because he is already known for at least one other dimension besides beauty. One of the greatest joys of watching Olympic-level sports is seeing a relatively wide variety of bodies (the sturdy weightlifters, the lithe skaters, the sculpted swimmers) performing at their utmost ability. These bodies are both beautiful and capable of exceptional deeds. To admire one quality is to appreciate the other.

Curler Anastasia Bryzgalova, Olympic Athlete from Russia, in the mixed doubles curling bronze medal match with Alexander Krushelnitsky against Norway's Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, at the Gangneung Curling Centre. Olympic Athletes from Russia won the game 8:4. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)
Russian curler Anastasia Bryzgalova.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images.
United States Men's Figure Skater Nathan Chen poses for a portrait with his bronze medal in the team event on the Today Show Set on February 17, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. (Photo by Marianna Massey/Getty Images)
United States Men’s Figure Skater Nathan Chen.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Marianna Massey/Getty Images.

The difference between a hot actress and a hot Olympian—one’s looks are essential to her success, and the other’s are ancillary—is also what makes the Pyeongchang beauties so appealing. They are not true sports celebrities in the manner of the marquee names of the NFL or NBA; their fame peaks and fades with the Olympic cycle, and they don’t usually make seven-figure salaries. So, we imagine that their lives are somewhat similar to ours—that they save up for West Elm furniture and have modest retirement goals and probably don’t start Botox injections at age 25. Idris Elba, Kristen Stewart, and Steph Curry are hot, but what would we pillow-talk to them about? Olympic hotties are global celebrities for a few weeks, but once the games are over, they drift back into the insular, probably dorky world of competitive luge or whatever. With the exception of a few enduring superstars like Lindsey Vonn, Michael Phelps, and Apolo Anton Ohno, the sexy people of the Olympics are like the new kids in school, admired as much for their novelty as for their objective good looks.

For viewers in the U.S., the freshest meat comes from overseas. Russian curler Anastasia Bryzgalova has prompted the most drooling of any Pyeongchang athlete, with commentators comparing her to a young Angelina Jolie or Megan Fox. After novelist Miles Klee tweeted about her icy blue gaze, a Russian journalist sent him an email. “We see you being a fan of Anastasia Bryzgalova,” she asked Klee. “May we ask you … why did you love this Russian athlete?”

Perhaps in Russia, Bryzgalova’s beauty is commonplace, or perhaps it’s seen as unseemly to remark on the delicate construction of an athlete’s lips. In America, however, it’s considered noteworthy—suspect, even!—for a model-hot person to choose a career that doesn’t directly glorify her beauty. It blows our minds to imagine a person with Bryzgalova’s facial symmetry devoting her life to the unglamorous sport of curling. To Olympian hotties, beauty is incidental to talent and glory. As One Direction might postulate, that’s exactly what makes them beautiful.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

The Long, Mortifying History of Ice Skating Wardrobe Malfunctions

Catty Olympics Fans Rejoice: The Medvedeva–Zagitova Figure Skating Showdown Is Here

Adam Rippon’s Costume Designer on the Skater’s Love of Crystals and Skintight Mesh