The Political Importance Of The Speedo


As the Winter Games approach, I don’t think it’s unpatriotic to realistically speculate that Australia’s chances of winning a bushel of gold medals are slim to none. We ain’t Russia. Where the host country dominates in winter sports (unsurprising, what with their having real winter and all, something few Australians can claim), Australia has won precisely one gold medal at the Winter Games, and it was entirely by accident.

But Australia can challenge Russia in one event that thankfully does not exist at the Winter Olympics, not even Russia’s Winter Olympics: the head of state nudity stakes.

The international community is familiar with the frequent shirtlessness of Vladimir Putin, whether he’s shirtless on horseback, or shirtless holding a fishing rod, or shirtless wrestling a bear made out of semiautomatic rifles (I made one of those up). But few people abroad are familiar with Australia’s new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, the leader of the newly-in power Liberal Party, who ascended to the top spot last September. Back home, Abbott’s affection for Speedos — known, in ever-elegant Australian slang, as “budgie smugglers” (a budgie is small native parakeet) — and for skin-tight cycling suits is legendary. Despite frequent pledges that he’ll stop appearing in public in his famous and famously revealing clothes, one of which — the Speedo — is something of a cultural touchstone in Australia, he doesn’t seem to be able to stop himself. When most people think of Australia, they think of the various, if largely exaggerated dangers one faces growing up there: snakes, spiders, crocodiles, Vegemite, etc. But few people consider the danger of turning on the TV and seeing your head of state, a world-leader and would-be serious representative of the country, emerging from the surf in what is basically underwear.

Americans, of course, will remember the few recent occasions on which their President appeared in a similar state of soggy undress — there’s that photo of Bill Clinton in swim trunks, and a couple of President Obama, early in his first term, also dressed to go for a dip. But those two photos of the current Commander in Chief were the last — possibly because of the unholy bombardment of breathless wall-to-wall news coverage they incited, as if Obama had mimed having sex with Robin Thicke at the VMAs or something of similar import. And I think we can all agree that there’s a world of difference between board shorts and Speedos, both for the wearer and the onlooker.

So, you might be asking, why? Why, when you run the country (or, as in previous years, you are aspiring to run the country), make Speedos your calling card? Abbott, a canny politician, is no doubt tapping into the archetypal image Australians have of themselves as fit, bronzed, beach-lovers, and into a particular image of the Australian man as possessing an athletic, outdoorsy kind of masculinity — even though the Speedo is more often seen on aging Aussie men, with most younger guys opting for boardies. That beach culture image is one with particular resonance in the electoral area he represents, the northern beaches of Sydney. There are plenty of people on the northern beaches, and in Australia writ large, who don’t conform to that archetype, but to quote Mel Brooks, if you got it, flaunt it. That said, Abbott, though he sometimes flaunts it, clearly recognises the incongruity between holding national office and appearing mostly naked in front of the press, and in front of a populace who struggle to take a man in budgie smugglers seriously — hence the occasional pledges to eschew the Speedo, and his agreement, in 2010, to burn a pair of them as part of an FM radio bit.

Abbott’s Speedo habit has frequently made headlines and punchlines in Australia, and for good reason: Australians, despite our grudging respect for government, aren’t particularly fond of politicians, and we relish any opportunity to make fun of them. In his Speedos, Abbott makes it particularly easy, but the tenor of some of the criticism makes me cringe a little. If we are to be outraged by the policing of the bodies of women politicians, then we should also find the bodysnarking about Abbott, and about other smaller-scale Australian politicians who have seen fit to wear budgie smugglers for photo ops, similarly irksome. Boys and men have body image issues, too, and we ought to find a more compelling reason to object to the Speedo than “he doesn’t look like Ryan Gosling.” Besides, there are many more pertinent reasons to object to Abbott — his policy on asylum seekers and his habit of telling everyone how hot his daughters are come to mind.

Still, there is something vaguely ridiculous about the Speedos, and about the coexistence of semi-nudity and the most powerful job in the country, which perhaps accounts for why Abbott and Putin are the only two heads of state in this particular race.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be thus. Perhaps wears revealing clothing and running a country should not be mutually exclusive, and should occur absent mockery and mildly embarrassed eyerolls by one’s citizenry; sometimes, talking about Abbott Speedo habit, it feels like we’ve all adopted his daughters’ tendency to shake their heads and make gentle fun of their daggy old dad.

As it stands, though, shirtlessness (and more) in heads of state is reserved for only Putin and Abbott – not the kind of company I’m thrilled to see my country keeping. Besides, if there’s one thing we know about Vladimir Putin, it’s that he doesn’t like to lose. Tony Abbott had best put on his bear-wrestling Speedo.

image – Shutterstock