If you’re like me, something about men’s gymnastics has always seemed—off. The athletes look uncomfortable, their movements encumbered, like they’re flipping and vaulting about in warm-up suits. Watching the qualifiers with a friend on Saturday, I wondered aloud when the men waiting on the sidelines for their events were going to take their shirts off.
“ … that’s just their uniforms,” my friend said, side-eyeing me like I was some kind of pervert.
In the four years since the last summer Olympics, I’d forgotten that male gymnasts don’t compete topless. Maybe I’d been dreaming about British diver Tom Daley or watching too much beach volleyball, where most women compete in bikinis, but the concept of some of the Olympics’ most ripped men doing their routines in tank tops and singlets struck me as deeply wrong.
It turns out the U.S. men’s gymnastics team backs me on this. Team members told the Wall Street Journal that, to get the kind of buzz that’s been swirling around the U.S. women’s team, they’ve considered competing topless. “People make fun of us for wearing tights,” Sam Mikulak, the four-time national men’s gymnastics champion, said. “But if they saw how yoked we are maybe that would make a difference.” Team USA’s Jake Dalton echoed the sentiment: “We have great physiques. Incredible physiques.”
There’s plenty to engross any variety of would-be ogler in the Olympic games: the quads and hammies of women’s rugby, the lats and delts of men’s swimming, the calves and hairdos of everyone on the soccer field. But male gymnasts are one-stop shops for committed scholars of the Olympic hardbody. (Buzzfeed’s encyclopedic account of the U.S. team’s Instagram feeds is a must-read for anyone interested in this field of study.)
To sexually objectify male athletes in the way magazines and commentators have traditionally done to female athletes is to subvert normative sexual politics and steal the gaze of mainstream sports media away from drooling straight men. And apart from the raw sex appeal of a finely tuned physique, watching how a system of individual muscles accomplishes a seemingly inhuman feat of athleticism adds another layer of grandeur to any televised sporting event.
But also, which sport is more compelling—this one?
Or this one?
Going shirtless might not be going far enough, in fact. Why should female gymnasts wear leotards cut at genital-defying angles while the men flounce about in fabric so voluminous, it might be mistaken for a pair of skorts or basketball shorts? Booty shorts or briefs would be a welcome next step from our men in red, white, and pecs. If an alleged (but denied) bronze-medal boner elevated U.S. rower Henrik Rummel to fame, imagine what competing in swimsuits could do for men’s gymnastics.