A vote for Olympian modesty

It occurred to me while watching the Olympic swimming events on TV that, just as the world turns, old things have a way of coming around to dawn as new again.

There was Michael Phelps and his hapless rivals dressed in head-to-toe bodysuits — only curled mustaches and straw hats away from looking like Edwardian gentleman about to take a dip in the sea. We have come full circle, sort of.

Back in the olden days, the antique swimsuits were made of wool or some other heavy material apparently designed to make the wearer sink to the depths in the interests of modesty. In that respectable time, people wouldn’t be caught dead in a revealing suit — and they surely got their wish. I only hope that their stylish boaters floated to the surface to mark the spot of their demise.

The suits today, such as Speedo’s LZR Racer, are also super modest but they are made of high-tech material that enable swimmers to churn through the water as if they had outboard motors poking out of their legs. Indeed, so many world records have been broken by athletes looking as sexy as sleek frogs that these suits have become controversial.

It is feared that one of these days a suit will jump in the water of its own accord, effectively cutting out the middleman, and break a world record. Then the authorities won’t know what national anthem to play.

This is quite a change from the Speedos of my youth. The Speedo company was founded in Australia and many is the summer I put on one of their suits — you didn’t get much material for your money — in order to impress the girls.

Incredibly, the girls remained unimpressed. I am sure this would have happened in the amber waves of pools in America if I had lived here. I am sure it still does among tradition-minded exhibitionists desperate to impress in places like Miami.

Of course, modesty is a dead duck today and I think you could walk down some main streets in the Western world in a tiny, traditional Speedo without anyone caring.

Back then, though, a Speedo suit was shockingly revealing considering the strait-laced times. While it was thought (by men) to turn every fellow into Greek statuary with a fig leaf of nylon covering, it mostly revealed male vanity and absurdness.

Indeed, so vulgar and gross were these male mating displays on public beaches that the Aussies came up with an expression for the abbreviated Speedo — the budgie smuggler. Budgie is short for budgerigar, the native Australian parakeet, and the idea was that a fine figure of a man would wow the crowd if he looked like he had a parrot up his pants.

Darn, it never worked for me. With my luck, a troop of female birdwatchers could have come to the beach and I would be left preening my feathers.

I realize the term "budgie smuggler" conjures up a bad image and is not entirely tasteful. But is it any worse than the actual names of Speedos sold in our era? A quick trip to the company’s Web site reveals, in the 5 cm line of men’s briefs, the following offerings: the Men’s Assertive, the Men’s Rock Rules, the Men’s Explode, and most disturbing of all, the Men’s Ice Placement.

This sends a chill through me. Why is ice being placed? And where? A suit suggestive of parakeets in an unusual nest is one thing; ice cubes is entirely another.

I hope women swimmers are treated more kindly. They wear the full bodysuits too in the Olympics, but ones that may be marginally less modest than the old-fashioned suits in Edwardian times, which featured skirts. A woman swimmer might also drown in such an outlandish costume, but, with luck, her skirt would float up to cover her face so she couldn’t see fish laughing.

In the Olympics, the women’s beach volleyball event is the last redoubt of the revealing suits. The contestants’ bikinis are possibly culturally discriminatory, because they make it very difficult for Saudi Arabia to field a team, which maybe they would like to do, as they have plenty of sand. Would you like to sign a petition to end this shocking state of affairs? I didn’t think so.

For my own part, I am content that the clock has been turned back a little bit and I do not feel obliged to put on the old Speedos and set dogs barking and citizens fleeing from the beach. I just returned from vacation and there I wore a most respectable pair of board shorts and I fit right in.

However, the girls were still unimpressed. Old things dawn as new but they stay the same.


(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)