Ball boys: players from the French and Irish rugby union teams chat in the locker room. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: If you want to be in a naked throng, the changing room still rules

Gay or straight, fat or thin, smooth or hairy, old or young: it seems entirely arbitrary as to whether a given man struts brazenly across the tiles, or cowers in the corners.

A fine smir of testosterone wavered about the bobbing heads of the jogging boys – or at least, that’s as I remember it. Oh! Where are the changing rooms of yesteryear? Where are the gracile bodies, the downy pelts, the helium squeaks of larynxes tossed hither and thither by the hormonal flux? We come to consciousness of our sexuality among the naked forms of our peers – and no doubt once this painful awareness has finally ebbed away we’ll find ourselves once more: bare, forked things, laid out in a row on the mortuary slab. I found the crowd in the boys’ changing room a torment: it didn’t help that, like so many pubescents, I yearned to excel at sports but was at best adequate. Nor was it helpful that I was a late developer – boys like Bullock and Gordon had a full pubis of hair while my assemblage still resembled an unfurling bracken frond; as for Nattawallah, at the age of 13 he had a handlebar moustache, the ends of which he could actually twirl.

The peculiar nature of our taboos is such that we seldom – if ever – get to experience the primal state of human being, which is surely to be one among a crowd of naked apes. True, there is that nominatively determined performance artist, Spencer Tunick, who assembles large nude groups in public places, but the very contrivance of these fleshy sculptures always makes their elements seem rather . . .  clothed.

Then there are occasional nude bicycle rides through large cities. I’ve no idea who organises these streaking streaks of streakers, but it’s certainly exhilarating to find yourself standing, say, in Shaftesbury Avenue, central London, watching as all those breasts and scrotums stream past. But I for one have never felt inclined to saddle up, any more than I’ve seriously considered visiting a nudist colony – what would be the point? As countless nudists have testified: the initial surrealism of queuing for sausage and two veg with your sausage and two veg on display is soon enough rendered quotidian: British nudists are heavily robed by their innate modesty – even when you can stare straight up their jacksies.

No, if you want to be in a naked throng the changing room remains the best bet; but what a change there’s been there since boyhood. There was no great nudity taboo in my family home – my father had no inhibitions at all, wandering about the house buck naked and gaily saluting anyone who happened to walk in on him while he was – in the Rabelaisian formulation – performing his necessary offices. My mother didn’t have quite the same abandon, confining herself to standing in her underwear in front of a mirror while chanting “fat and old”. No wonder while I was growing up I was preternaturally modest, a veritable Alyosha Karamazov, who couldn’t bear so much as the utterance of the word “bare”.

However, with age comes acceptance: nowadays I, too, stalk the house with my knackers clacking; I, too, leave the bathroom door unlocked (in fact, there is no lock anyway); I, too, meditate in front of the mirror upon the strange inscriptions that time has carved on my wanting flesh.

And in the changing room I delight in being a scrawny, piebald, moulting man among men. Ideally, I’d like to be such among women as well, but given the perverse endurance of our taboos, this isn’t a possibility. Now that I no longer have to teeter from one foot to the other while attempting to shield my groin area from the sportive Actaeons, what amazes me about the experience is that there’s no correlation between a man’s outward characteristics and his inner awareness. I swim thrice weekly at the Marshall Street Baths hard by Carnaby Street in London and I dare say a fair few of my fellow swimmers are familiar with what Father Ted described as “the rough and tumble of homosexual activity”. Be that as it may, gay or straight, fat or thin, smooth or hairy, old or young, fair or a veritable impasto of epidermal corruption – it makes no difference: it seems entirely arbitrary as to whether a given man struts brazenly across the tiles, or cowers in the corners. Some disport themselves in the showers as if they were walruses snorting on a wave-dashed ice floe, others ablute in their swimming costumes, pulling out the front so as to funnel a jet on to their nylon-coddled genitals. Weird.

My female informants tell me that on their side of the splash bath the same lack of a rubric applies: beautiful young women, who wouldn’t look out of place cruising through the chlorine in a giant seashell, with only chiffon wisps to mask breasts and mons veneris, are beset by shyness – yet great-aged wattled creatures stomp about carefree. I find this heartening: we may think we live in a society obsessed by body form, but perhaps the commodification only really gets put on along with the clothes that reduce us to a set of economic and cultural variables. It may be that if we want to lose our nagging sense of ugliness and inferiority the best course is to get naked in a crowd: dress to kill – strip to live.

Next week: On Location

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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Why a man soiling himself was one of my Olympic highlights

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline.

There used to be a rumour that a newspaper (now defunct) had in its possession some compromising photographs of the wife of a beloved TV entertainer (now dead) romancing a chihuahua. I mention this because I think John Inverdale must have a similar hold over BBC Sport bosses. How else does he get such great gigs? At the Olympics, if he wasn’t being corrected by Andy Murray about the existence of women, he was having water droplets “accidentally” shaken over him by a sour-faced Steve Redgrave as he aired out his umbrella.

Then again, perhaps Inverdale’s continued employment is the salt in the caramel, or the Tabasco in a Bloody Mary: a small irritant, designed to give a kick to what would otherwise be bland niceness shading into enforced cheeriness. The rest of the Olympic presenters (grumpy Sir Steve possibly excepted) were a bunch of lambs: the sweet Helen Skelton, and the even sweeter Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington, hosting the swimming; Matt Baker from The One Show and Beth Tweddle doing the gymnastics; that poor bloke they put on the beach so that leery passers-by and lecherous drunken couples could get into his shot. With 306 events over 19 days, I felt as if Clare Balding had moved into my spare room, we were spending so much time together. (The fact I didn’t want to smash my screen every time she came on is proof that she’s worth every penny of her £500,000 salary.)

The time zone difference could have made these Olympics a washout for British viewers, but the BBC used its red-button technology sensibly, and the presenters (mostly) coped with pretending they didn’t know what was going to happen while hosting the highlight reels. Someone at New Broadcasting House even grew a pair as the first week went on and stopped news programmes from intruding on the medal action. Earlier in the week, viewers had been forced to hop from BBC1 to BBC4 to BBC2 to follow their favourite events, the change sometimes occurring at an inopportune moment.

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline. Unlike football, say, where true enjoyment requires memorising rafts of statistics and forming strong opinions about the transfer market, all Olympics coverage is designed for people who couldn’t tell one end of a derny bike from the other five minutes ago. Who really understands the rules of the omnium? Luckily, it turns out you don’t need to.

I thought I was going to hate the Olympics, which took place in the shadow of controversies over drug testing, the US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s faked robbery and Caster Semenya’s hormone levels. For all the guff about the international hand of friendship, the Games are a ruthless commercial enterprise, and one in which global inequalities are harshly self-evident. Are Americans just better athletes than the rest of the world? Clearly not. Money buys success. Could most of us, even given a trainer, dietician and acres of free time, qualify for any of these sports? No. Genetically, most of us are Morlocks compared to these people.

Nonetheless, all the natural (and artificial) advantages in the world can’t win you a gold medal if you sit on your sofa and eat Pringles all day. One of my favourite competitions was the gymnastics, where Simone Biles of the United States seemed to dominate effortlessly. Yes, being 4ft 8in clearly helps her – her shorter steps allow her to pack in more tumbles – but she’s still willing to do a somersault on a bar four inches wide. (The dangers of the discipline became clear when the French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd snapped his leg landing off the vault on the first day of qualifying rounds.) In the 50-kilometre race walk, Yohann Diniz pooed himself, collap­sed twice – and still finished in eighth place.

These are the Olympic moments I cherish. Usain Bolt makes it look too easy, which is boring. Without a narrative, sport is little more than a meaningless spectacle – a Michael Bay film or the latest Call of Duty. Luckily, Team GB seemed to heed the call for drama, delivering us a penalty shoot-out victory in the women’s hockey (and a team with a married couple in it); a comeback for Mo Farah after the allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar; and a surprising failure for Tom Daley in the 10-metre dive. We also got to see Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s races through each other’s eyes.

In other words, bring on Tokyo 2020, so I can grouse about the money and the drugs and the inequality right up to the moment the first person shits themselves – and still finishes the race. Truly, human endeavour is a beautiful sight to behold. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser