No one would dispute that the body of the average professional athlete is superior to the body of the average professional couch potato. We've come to accept that athletes are faster, stronger and more coordinated than the rest of us. But are they also just plain more attractive?
In The Learning Channel's four-hour special The Human Face, biologist John Manning of the University of Liverpool contends that there's a link between facial beauty and athletic ability. Manning, who says that "people rate symmetric faces as being more attractive than asymmetric faces," performed tests that found runners with asymmetric ears to be slower than those with symmetric ears. Why might this be so? Manning argues that facial symmetry reflects symmetry in the body: A visage mat's off by as little as a millimeter from one side to the other—the left eye slightly lower or smaller than the right eye, for instance—can signal a similar shortfall in coordination and speed.
Plastic surgeon Stephen Marquardt of Huntington Beach, Calif., who studies attractiveness, agrees that the average jock is better-looking than the average Joe. "The face is a barometer of how symmetric the rest of the body is," says Marquardt, "and a symmetric body is probably going to function better." He notes, however, that athletes are also typically healthier than other people, which also adds to their appearance. Marquardt points to tennis players Venus and Serena Williams and "the Russian girl" as ideals of symmetry, health, athleticism and beauty.
Not all experts agree that pulchritude equals performance. "I don't think ears or the length of your nose or toenails are directly linked to performance," says physiologist Peter Davis, director of coaching and sports science for the U.S. Olympic Committee. Davis says athletes strive for symmetry in their bodies to help with technique as well as to avoid injury, but the idea that beautiful faces run faster, throw harder or serve better is ridiculous. "Beauty is a pretty subjective tiling, isn't it?" he says.
In a random survey, athletes were split on the subject. "You can't say that people in one job are better looking than people in another," says rotund Red Sox reliever Rich Garces, "but I may not be the right person to ask." Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice, meanwhile, knows at least one athlete who stands out from the crowd. "I look good," Rice says. "I have Adonis-type form. I enjoy being me."