Sporting heroes and Tarzans

Johnny Weissmuller was famous, both as an Olympic swimmer and as Tarzan.  He won five Olympic gold medals in swimming between 1924 and 1928, and played Tarzan in twelve films between 1932 and 1948.

Johnny Weissmuller's body is, inevitably, well documented in film and photograph.  It is the highly muscled body that is typical both of the elite swimmer of that period and of many actors.  Yet it is a very different body to that of his modern counterparts, be these the swimmer Michael Phelps or Alexander Skarsgård, the most recent actor to play Tarzan.

Both these bodies are like Weissmuller's in being highly muscled.  However, the definition of the muscle is much more precise, in what body builders refer to as clean bulking.  In the case of Skarsgård the definition is almost ludicrously clean (or is this just CGI?).
It might be argued, in the cases of Phelps, that this development of the body is simply a product of sports science.  It is a more efficient, more effectively trained body, and this body type is seen in many sports, not just swimming.

There may, nonetheless, be more at stake than the simple application of science.  Sports science alone would not necessarily explain the transfer of the athletic body into cinema (or indeed to advertising, where it is also now predominant).  The modern athletic body has a broader significance.  It is, I will suggest, the body of a certain type of hero.  More precisely, it is the body of the hero of a certain type of story, and a story that is subtly different to the one which features Weissmuller.

Weissmuller epitomises a story of the self-made individual.  Migrating to America as a young boy, Weissmuller achieves spectacular social mobility through the skillful and dedicated application of his talents.  Weissmuller is an autonomous agent, acting freely and effectively on the basis of a native wit.  His Tarzan, however, adds a slightly different nuance to the story.  As a hero Tarzan is again a free and intuitive agent, but now he acts to protect and redeem a community.  Furthermore, while Weissmuller's origins are humble, Tarzan's are mysterious.  (Weissmuller's Tarzan is essentially from nowhere, and is not even Edgar Rise Burrough's English aristocrat Lord Greystokes.)

Both stories have a mythical appeal.  In a social world that is experienced by most ordinary people as largely chaotic and meaningless, and crucially a world upon which they have no influence, Weissmuller and Tarzan are models of achievement and meaningful action.  They assert their autonomy in the face of a socially imposed impotence, achieving either individual or communal redemption.  There will be a Tarzan to save us.

Modern audiences may be too cynical to accept these myths any longer.  (Superheroes are more psychologically troubled and technically complex beings.)  Now athletes such as Phelps exemplify meaningful agency.  The modern athletic is the new hero.  For ordinary people, whose experience of the world continues to be blunted by the impotence and meaninglessness of anomie, the winning athlete represents the hero who continues to act meaningfully and decisively.  They have acted so as to win the game.  The athlete exemplifies purposeful agency, and they give dignity and meaning to the communities they represent.

The muscular and sculpted bodies of modern athletes are thus still the bodies of autonomous agents.  Yet while Weissmuller seems to have been gifted a muscular body by nature, albeit a body packed with talents that he must then cultivate and use effectively, Phelps' body is different.  It exemplifies a deeper agency.  His body is not simply a gift of nature or of fate.  It is rather as if his a body has been striven for and achieved.  The raw product of nature, upon which Weissmuller had to rely, has been refined.  It is a product of rational science, and not simply native wit.  In its clean bulk and in the precise definition of each muscle group, it is a product as much of Phelps' will and agency as it is a product of nature.  He has made this body what it is.

The myth, while attractive, is still a myth.  It is flawed.

Phelps' body is indeed the product of science.  He therefore cannot realise it alone, but only as part of a disciplined training programme.  His autonomy is compromised by the sporting system of which he is necessarily a part.  The scientific precision of modern professional training is most obvious in cycling.  The cyclist is the precisely quantified and manipulated organic component that is necessary to making the bicycle work.  Wiggins and Froome win because Sky is the most technically advanced team.

More importantly, by focusing only on winners, the myth ignores the fact that the loser's body looks identical to Phelps'.  It too is sculpted and trained.  Yet, in sport, there are far more losers than there are winners.  One cannot chose to win, and at its most profound, the experience of sport violently assaults our illusions of autonomy and invincibility.  Sport, in the experience of injury, poor form, and ultimately defeat, reminds us continually of our vulnerability.  Even Phelps and those who share his body type are vulnerable.

The myth is also very much a myth of male agency.  Women athletes who adopt this body-type are frequently objectified.  The muscular development of the female body is potentially subversive and threatening to a patriarchal culture.  It must be neutralised.  The female athlete's body is thus subjected to a sexualised gaze, most notably in the case of female beach volleyball.  While male players wear singlets and shorts, female players wear bikinis.  The spectator is invited to gaze upon their musculature, which is as cleanly defined as that of Phelps, not as the manifestation of autonomy and power, but as that of an erotic, fantasy body.  The Legends Football League, a form of American football for women, takes this tendency to an extreme.

The female body-builder may disrupt this neutralisation.  She redefines what the female body may be.  She, better than Phelps, exemplifies the ideal of willing one's own body.  She offers a new musculature, a new shape to the body, and even something new in details such as veins and the texture of skin.  Here, perhaps, is a genuine autonomy, or at least a more profound reaction to anomie.  The female body-builder chooses to be different.  Even if eroticised, the nature of the erotic has been challenged.

What then of Tarzan?  Skarsgård's body has its own peculiar aesthetic.  The precision of the cleanly bulked muscles is muddied by the presentation primitive veins.  The body is raw.  It offers a new myth of nature.  It has seen through Phelps' science, and as such strives to throw off the cultivation of the gymnasium and sport science programme.  It exposes Phelps' body as unnatural and artificial.  Skarsgård's body returns to nature as its proving ground.  Yet, of course, this is merely a new myth, or perhaps, it is the way in which one returns to the original Weissmuller Tarzan after Phelps.  Skarsgård's body is one for a Tarzan who shares Weissmuller's native wit, not Phelps' rational science.  But, one might speculate, what if Tarzan had been a woman.



Dr Andrew Edgar is director of the Cardiff Centre for Applied Ethics. He teaches in the fields of German Philosophy, Political Philosophy and the Philosophy of Art. My research focuses on the philosophy of medicine and health care, and on the philosophy of sport.

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