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Athletes are champions on the field, and of larger issues on the world stage.

George Orwell famously referred to modern global sport as “war minus the shooting.” In this view, sport enacts larger political conflicts, and world-class athletes become both spirited performers and fierce partisans—proxy warriors whose successes or failures reverberate far beyond the field of competition. These echoes are loudest at moments of great tension, when war may be unthinkable but competing sides crave victory and vindication over their rivals. On the most prominent stage for international competition, the athletes of the modern Olympics compete at the apogee of their sports while they engage the great political and social struggles of our age. The most powerful images of these competitors convey a fascinating balance of ferocity and beauty and show athletes not merely as combatants but as men and women striving to advance the ideals of humanity.

When Sports Illustrated asked readers in 2014 to vote on its “most iconic” cover of the previous 60 years, the readers chose its depiction of the US Olympic hockey team’s 1980 victory over the USSR in Lake Placid. Heinz Kluetmeier’s photograph captured a moment of tumultuous jubilation after the final buzzer. Some athletes embraced; others lifted arms and sticks in victory; still others sprawled on the ice, their skates and gloves pointing inelegantly skyward. A fan’s American flag waved over the commotion. Hardly reminiscent of classical statues of Olympic javelin or discus throwers, it instead conveyed the breathless, spontaneous joy of victory at a moment of global dread. Everyone watching the Cold War rivals witnessed more than an athletic contest; and the photograph captured a collective exuberance that felt heroic and historic, at least for Americans.

Twelve years earlier in Mexico City, two African-American sprinters stood momentarily victorious but resolutely engaged in the continuing global struggle of the oppressed. John Dominis photographed gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos with bowed heads and powerfully raised fists, one left and one right. They were offering what Carlos described in his autobiography as a “human rights salute” (widely, but erroneously, reported as a “Black Power” salute) to the world. The overtly political gesture came at great cost—resulting in the athletes’ ejection from the games and intense criticism in the US—but forcefully captured personal triumph subsumed by national and global apprehensions.

Fanny Blankers-Koen had engaged in a similar struggle as she competed for four gold medals at the 1948 London Olympics. Although the International Athletics Association named the versatile Dutch runner “woman athlete of the 20th century” in 1999, the world knew her, sometimes derisively, as “The Flying Housewife.” Critics questioned her for “selfishly” racing instead of constantly mothering her two children and for competing in front of the world at the advanced age of 30 “in short trousers.” A later description of Blankers-Koen as “A Queen with Man’s Legs” (the title of a 2003 biography by Kees Kooman), proffers a no less paradoxical image of an athlete whom photographs show ferociously breaking Olympic finish lines, every leg muscle etched in beautiful intensity. It exemplifies a persistent and troubling incongruity described by sociologists Ali Bowes and Alan Bairner in their recent study of elite British women athletes. They found that these athletes often feel compelled to “develop characteristics associated with masculinity,” and to define their femininity “in contrast to, and apart from, sport.” In her early victories, Blankers-Koen represented not just the Netherlands, but also the ongoing effort of all women in sport to gain equivalence as athletes.

Understanding that Olympians symbolize something larger than sport, reggae artist Ziggy Marley calls his Jamaican countryman Usain Bolt “a unifying force.” “Usain Bolt is a light,” he told TIME magazine, and a global generation of ordinary people can look up to this brilliant athlete, whose own modest upbringing and lack of artifice make him one of them. Christian Petersen’s joyous 2012 portrait of Bolt after a world record–setting sprint in Beijing captures this humanity, as well as the ancient perfection of the Olympic ideal. With one knee on the ground, waist and shoulders counterpoised, eyes forward, Bolt casts his perfectly formed arms diagonally skyward in happy victory. This iconic photo is a reminder that we admire Olympians not just for their athletic prowess, but also because they carry historic burdens.

  • Words:
    Alex Anderson
  • Photography:
    Robin Broadbent
  • Words:
    Alex Anderson
  • Photography:
    Robin Broadbent
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