When I first started drafting this story, I created a little formula for myself, tapping into memories of those old SAT analogies tests.
I’m not proud to admit I first put it this way:
An athlete: “normal” person ::
an abled person: person with a disability.
Many have noticed the fascination that so-called normals have with the movements of those with visible disabilities, as well as their scuffling attempts to disguise their curiosity. (I’d wager that the most curious are people who view those with disabilities as being fundamentally unlike themselves.)
In the even more public sphere, the hyper-flexible athlete-performers called contortionists also attract a gaze that comes from a sense of difference and otherness. While their physical capabilities are really not unlike those of some advanced yoga practitioners, dancers, and gymnasts, the drastic nature of the positions into which they get themselves can evoke for spectators a kind of kinesthetic horror; some people even describe getting nauseous watching contortionists’ circus acts.
They don’t all do “everything.” Contortionists may specialize in forward bending, like when they turn themselves into a “human knot,” their legs behind neck or shoulders; backbending, their heads tucked up to their buttocks (called a “head-set,” in case you’re ever asked this on a quiz show); splits and oversplits, the legs separated by 180 or more degrees; joint dislocations; or enterology, bodies squeezed into miniscule boxes.
The extreme limberness of these performer-athletes, developed over years of intense training, challenges our ideas of what the human body “should” be able to do, and what just seems beyond the human. When we see a knee turn inward, we generally assume something’s going to tear. It’s the deeds that challenge our ideas of the body’s structure that horrify us.
Olympic athletes also perform extreme feats, far beyond what the “normal” body can do. However, the realm of what they do tends far more often to lie in the realms of endurance, speed, coordination, and lift, as well as in an extraordinarily developed ability to select from among a panoply of specialized movements and predict the biomechanical consequences of infinitesimally small weight shifts. Less visible but no less exceptional is the discipline they bring to their work.
Speed and height seem to exhilarate rather than repel us. Snowboarding gold medalist Shaun White achieves fantastic heights as slopes and curves throw him into the air. He rotates his body in multiple aerial spins (“900s” and “1080s,” named for the number of degrees turned), somersault-axis flips, and combinations in both planes at once. White’s virtuosic jumps and turns and his control of the board have garnered YouTube viewings in the millions, a sign of attraction to rather than horror at the forms his excellence takes. It probably doesn’t hurt that, because of the speed with which a snowboarder traverses space, he has to be filmed from afar–which may help to ameliorate the intensity of our fascination with the workings of an extraordinarily developed body; he’s just not as threatening as a contortionist, though arguably is more talented. Although we can see, even at a distance, how he takes the upper body first into a turn, corkscrewing his lower body around after it, we keep a safe distance.
In America, we get a bit squeamish about getting too close to a male athlete’s beauty, grace, and especially body. As the late David Foster Wallace noted, it’s rare in sports commentaries or writing to find reference to any of these. His 2006 New York Times story, extravagantly entitled “Federer as Religious Experience,” offered tribute to tennis player Roger Federer. Like Michael Jordan, Wallace opined, Federer seems to be “exempt” from the law of gravity, possessing a kind of “kinetic beauty” that is rarely talked about in men’s sports. Beauty has a place in sports–even men’s sports, Wallace reminds us: while it’s “not the goal of competitive sports, … high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.”
Thankfully, on reflection, I realized my original formulation is all backwards and inside-out. The so-called disabled and the virtuosic athlete or performing artist both press outward our prior beliefs in the limits of human potential. Indeed, both experiences of the body are about specialization and adaptation.
So maybe my SAT test item should read:
An athlete: “normal” person :: a person with a disability: an abled person.