Friday, 13 July 2012

An Olympic Streak

On 10 July 2012, the BBC ran this story:

Olympic torch: Man charged after 'Free Tibet' streak A man has been charged with indecent exposure after a streaker ran naked across the front of the torch convoy as it travelled through Henley. The streaker had "Free Tibet" written on his back and ran a short distance past crowds waiting to see the torch relay beside the River Thames. Daniel Leer, 27, from Henley-on-Thames has been released on bail to appear at Oxford Magistrates' Court on 25 July.Officers tackled him and covered him up, said the BBC's Priya Patel.

Assistant Chief Constable John Campbell, overseeing the torch relay policing operation, said: "This was an isolated incident that was quickly dealt with by police officers and thankfully did not disrupt the torch relay as it passed through Henley. "The torch relay events of yesterday and today have been attended by thousands of people who lined the routes through towns and villages, and seemed to have really enjoyed this once in a lifetime experience, and we have every confidence that this will continue." The incident took place shortly before five-times gold medal winner Sir Steve Redgrave rowed with the torch on the Thames.(1)

Of course, it is ironic, given that the original Olympic games was run naked in Athens.  This seems to have happened by chance, in the fifteenth Olympiad when Orsippos of Megara lost his loincloth, persevered, and ran to victory. The Greek writer Pausanias notes:

"Near Koroibos is buried Orsippos who won the stadion at the Olympic Games by running naked when, at the time, athletes wore loincloths at the contests according to ancient custom. They also say that Orsippos, while a general, appropriated territory belonging to his neighbors. I believe that even at Olympia the loincloth was slipped off on purpose, since he realized that it is easier for a naked man to run than one wearing a loincloth."

How much of this story is true, and how much invented to give a rationale for a custom is not known, but custom it was. By the classical period of the 5th to 4th centuries BC, athletic nudity was widespread among Greeks and universally shocking to foreigners. To be naked was a sign that one needed no props, a fact confirmed in Xenophon where he notes of captured foreigners:  "When Agesilaos' soldiers saw them white because they never stripped and fat and lazy from always being in wagons, they believed that the war would not be any different from fighting with women".

And this practice persisted. The Roman epic poet Statius (45-96 AD) mentions it when runners enter the course to race: "When the bar fell and left a fair entrance for all, they lightly seized the course, and their naked company glistened across the plain "

But the modern sense of the world - as widespread, dates from around 1973. Before that, the verb "to streak" - in English since 1768, meant ""to go quickly, to rush, to run at full", it was a variant of "streek", and came from the same root as "stretch"

The term "streaking" was popularized by a reporter for a local Washington,  D.C. news station as he watched a "mass nude run" take place at the  University of Maryland in 1973. That nude run had 533 participants. As the  collected mass of nude students exited Bel Air dorm, the reporter, whose  voice was broadcast live over the station via a pay phone connection  exclaimed... "they are streaking past me right now. It's an incredible  sight!" The next day it was out on the Associated Press wire as "streaking"  and had nationwide coverage. (2)

Ruth Barcan, in her study of nudity as a cultural phenomena notes that unlike the "flasher", who exposes their genitals suddenly to shock or distress, that streaking is much more of a comic phenomena:

It is the specific focus on the penis that helps give flashing some of its power to shock or distress. By contrast, the exposure of the entire male body in public is much more prone to have comic effects. Although streaking is technically a minor offence under the same section of the Summary Offences Act hat governs flashing (in Australia), it functions differently culturally. Nowadays, it is quite likely to be considered a joke, or at least a form of insolence rather than mastery. Streaking is a very public act, mostly performed in front of crowds. It is usually carried out by young men, sometimes in groups. It involves the exposure of the entire body and not just the penis, and that body is, literally, on the run. The streaker usually aims to shock, surprise or entertain (and occasionally to self-publicize for commercial reasons). Many streakers are intoxicated, or accepting a dare. Nowadays, sociologists, police, psychologists and a fair proportion of the public are likely to consider streaking and other practices such as mooning as neither particularly perverse nor dangerous and only marginally criminal. Instead, these acts are mostly understood as a joke, a fad or perhaps a nuisance. Streaking at large events has to some extent been curtailed by large fines at major sporting venues and by the agreement of television crews to turn their cameras away from the streaker. (2)

It was very much part of 1970s culture, and I remember a fellow student at Exeter University wound up in the local papers (not literally, a policeman's helmet was used for covering up rude parts!) for streaking in a football match. It's also, as Lucy Rollin notes, very much a part of teen culture. You don't get old men streaking. For one thing, they wouldn't probably have the speed - just imagine some old bese, bald, pot-bellied individual wheezing as they tried to run across a football pitch:

In popular culture, the Seventies are often considered a joke decade, defined by shag carpet, pet rocks, streaking, polyester leisure suits, and the thumpthump of Beethoven to a disco beat. The silliest fad of the Seventies was streaking--running nude through a crowded public place. College boys did it on a dare, dashing through football stadiums at halftime trying to outrun the guards and police. (3)

Streaking is a recent dramatic example of the thumb-to-nose hurray-for-me-and to-hell-with-everybody-else syndrome in modern society. It is the latest attempt to erode and destroy convention, decency, and decorum and is primarily an act of teenage and young adult defiance rather than an isolated, innocuous student prank. Its precursors are long unkempt hair, dirty jeans, dirty feet, hippyism, "ups," "downs," LSD, heroin, and so-called total female liberation. (Elkins 1974: 157) (3)

It was very popular in the 1970s, and then died away as quickly as it came. In the 1980s, Elizabeth Loftus remarked on how strange fads like this were:

Some social scientists have suggested that a fad must seem to be novel and must be broadly consistent with the times and particularly with modern values. Fads are generally accelerated by widespread publicity, often in the form of advertising. A decade ago, for example, the curious fad of "streaking" (running in the nude in public places) suddenly came into being. In those days streakers ran across television screens and basketball courts. Male streakers streaked through female dormitories and females streaked back. Streakers sprung up in the most unlikely places, and then almost as quickly as the fad began, it was over. Why did this fad occur? One possibility is that 1974, when the fad erupted, was a socially and politically difficult time in the United States: Richard Nixon had resigned and we were just experiencing the deep shock of the first oil crisis. The rebelliousness of streaking provided some contrast and relief.(4)

But the modern roots of streaking may go back to an earlier age of unrest. Between 1800 and 1815, at Washington College, USA, there was a real time of student unrest. John J. Crittenden, who later became a U.S. senator, was expelled for attacking an official with a knife. Another student was expelled for impersonating the devil. But George William Crump seems to have started the practice of streaking, long before it gained popularity as a quick fad. It's interesting that, like in the 1970s, it was an act of rebellion against authority.

Perhaps the most infamous of the school's students was George William Crump, who is credited with the invention of "streaking," Mr. Sanders said. "He frolicked in the nude in the town fountain," he said. Mr. Crump,  suspended from the school in August 1804, went on to become a congressman and U.S. ambassador to Chile. The streaking tradition has carried on for centuries, and is now part of student life at the University of Virginia (UVa.) in Charlottesville. "Officially, it's illegal, but everyone does it," said UVa. senior Chris  Ray, 21, a financial math and financial economics major. Mr. Ray described the tradition of streaking across the school's lawn from  Thomas Jefferson's rotunda to a statue of Homer yards away. When students reach it, they must kiss the statue's backside. (5)

Streaking seems to have been well-established on some college campuses by the mid-1960s, possibly taking its cue from this origin, but it was the reporter in 1973 in Maryland, who lit the touch paper with his report, and after that, the practice exploded across the USA and England. It is perhaps ironic that the Olympic Games has seen a modern instance of the practice.

(2) Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy by Ruth Barcan (2004)
(3) Twentieth-Century Teen Culture by the Decades: A Reference Guide, Lucy Rollin, 1999
(4) Mind at Play: The Psychology of Video Games. Geoffrey R. Loftus, Elizabeth F. Loftus - , 1983
(5) A Present Built on the Past; in Virginia, History Is Warmly Embraced. The Washington Times. July 3, 2005.

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