Call them the “Magic Mike” Olympics.
The Games have always meant different things to different people, whether they are fans of popular sports, passionate adherents of niche activities like air rifle shooting or the hammer throw, or those who enjoy tracking any athletic endeavor at the championship level.
Another cohort following the Olympics, though, does so without much knowledge or even interest in the rules and arcana. They are the armchair voyeurs, excited by the sight of bodies at the peak of perfection. That those bodies are often clad in uniforms leaving little to the imagination is part of the appeal.
It’s hard to imagine in earlier and more puritanical times a feature like “36 of the Greatest Summer Olympic Bulges” appearing in a mainstream American magazine, even one as prurient as Cosmopolitan. Yet fashions shift in all things. And a Cosmo slide show that captures and rates the genital endowments of various male athletes almost immediately went viral across social media. Unprintable here, the subheadline even suggests awarding gold medals for exceptional, uh, performance.
Bulges are as inevitable a part of the Summer Games as Bob Costas — still soothingly and reliably prating from the control booth like an automaton from “Tomorrowland.” There is a decided change, however, in the way performance fabrics have increased the visibility of virtually any body part they purport to cover and equally in the frankness of a contemporary viewer’s gaze.
Even before Sam Mikulak of the United States men’s gymnastics team remarked to The Wall Street Journal that his teammates might garner something like the attention paid their more obviously mediagenic female colleagues if they performed shirtless, Mr. Mikulak and his teammate Jake Dalton were regularly posting Instagram shots of their ripped torsos during training.
“People make fun of us for wearing tights,” Mr. Mikulak told The Journal. “But if they saw how yoked we are maybe that would make a difference.”
Consider “yoked” (Urban Dictionary: “well muscled, powerfully built”) a keyword for an Olympics whose stark objectification of the male body is in line with the runaway success of feminist stealth blogs like “Hot Dudes Reading” and, for that matter, with the billions of images proliferating across social media of hot dudes doing practically anything.
Women and gay men are assumed to be the audience for these displays. The truth is, everybody’s looking. You can judge that by how quickly the image of the shirtless, oil-slicked Pita Taufatofua — the Tongan taekwondo champion with the body of a bendable action figure — as the flag bearer for his country’s Olympics delegation not only stole the show at Friday evening’s Parade of Nations but also soon enough thereafter stoked the internet.
Much of the commentary after Mr. Taufatofua’s later appearance on “Today” wearing traditional Tongan garb focused on the giddiness of the show’s female hosts — Hoda Kotb, Natalie Morales and Jenna Bush Hager — as they lasciviously stroked the shiny torso of an athlete who looked ready to be deep-fried.
Yet there was Matt Lauer, stepping forward gingerly to run a finger over the athlete’s biceps. (Al Roker, who had eagerly supplied the sunscreen with which his female co-hosts rubbed Mr. Taufatofua, stood flummoxed on the sidelines.)
Role reversal has been an unacknowledged dimension of the Summer Games. Now it is the men’s turn to be objectified as hotties: divers like David Boudia, a gold medalist in 2012, or the Briton Tom Daly — each clad in suits so brief that they make the modest swimwear of the 1960s look like girdles — or Michael Phelps, whose anatomical particulars are not only a subject of ceaseless internet exegesis but are also burned into many viewers’ brains.
A century ago, male swimmers wore singlets to compete in the Olympics. Male runners wore voluminous shorts. These days, even the male equestrians, surely the most fully attired of all Olympians, favor skintight breeches over the flapping jodhpurs of yesteryear. Full body depilation for all guys — not merely the swimmers who shave to eliminate drag in the water — is so widely accepted a cultural practice that an “Access Hollywood” reporter in Rio submitted to a Brazilian waxing on the air.
Women are not the only ones expected anymore to present themselves with what the satirist Charles Ludlam once termed “all the nudity of a statue.” Such is the modish feminization of even the world’s top male athletes that the most startling sight at the XXXI Olympiad may be a guy with hairy pits.