The Nudist Olympics were beginning, and Nada O'Connell, in a sundress, led the way across Olive Dell Ranch's dusty, boulder-strewn grounds. "These Olympics aren't any big deal," she remarked. "The important thing is that the kids enjoy them." Then she confronted a question that begged to be asked: Why was she, Nada O'Connell, publicity director of one of the nation's largest nudist clubs, wearing clothes?
The answer was circuitous. "Nudism is changing," Mrs. O'Connell said. "Some clubs, especially in the Midwest, are more conservative, but at Olive Dell we feel that the freedom to go nude is no longer a freedom if it is imposed on you. We feel it is O.K. to wear clothes for reasons of health or comfort." She motioned toward an oppressive sun that made it seem later in the year than Easter weekend and later in the day than 10 a.m. "I'm a fair person. I can't take too much sun. I burn like crazy."
Mrs. O'Connell descended a path into one of the many canyons that cause this parched and scrubby landscape east of Los Angeles to be called the California Badlands. The hillside had been bulldozed to make room for a track that looped not quite perfectly around a patchy infield. Starting lines had been drawn on the dirt and some two dozen youngsters milled about, kicking up clouds of chalk. Aged 6 to 12, they were naked save for shoes, which varied from sneakers on the boys to patent leather flats on a couple of the girls.
"They have their track events and their swimming, and the winner of each event gets a blue ribbon," said Mrs. O'Connell. "But there's something else this year. The kid who wins the most blue ribbons gets a $50 Savings Bond as grand prize. How about that"!"
A smattering of spectators, mostly parents of competitors, occupied rows of faded bleachers set amphitheater-style on the hillside. To judge from their lack of attire, all enjoyed greater tolerance for the sun than Nada O'Connell. They came in every size and shape: some as straight as the bamboo that swayed in the faint morning breeze, others as fully contoured as the surrounding hills, still others gnarled like the olive trees that seemed to grow everywhere, giving Olive Dell its name.
In the middle of the children stood 17-year-old David Manning, the lean and thoroughly tanned son of Olive Dell's owner. Manning's starter's pistol had jammed. He labored over it for several moments before concluding bleakly, "Well, it just doesn't work." Some of the children wandered into the bleachers to join their parents. The scene was disintegrating, like a village picnic menaced by tornados. Then, just in time, a solution was found. Somebody produced a whistle. Manning, dressed in just the whistle, signaled for the Nudist Olympics to begin
The International Olympic Committee would be horrified by the $50 first prize, to say nothing of Olive Dell's concept of a nude Games. Yet athletes in the ancient Olympics always competed naked, and the Hellenic tradition of clothesless sport is reflected in the word gymnasium, which is derived from gymnos, Greek for nude.
The only traces of nudity left in sport are in our figures of speech. Nowadays we talk of naked reverses or faking an opponent out of one or another item of apparel. Marathon swimmers sometimes dispense with bathing suits to prevent chafing, but skinny dipping at the swimming hole or neighborhood YMCA is on the wane, with pollution to blame on the one hand and coed swimming programs on the other. Nor is it necessarily a hopeful sign that Dawn Fraser, the former Australian champion, has suggested that competitive swimmers might perform better without suits. "I've swum in the altogether several times, and it's always given me a terrific sense of relaxation and freedom," Fraser writes in her autobiography Below the Surface. "A nude Olympics would provide an imaginative return to the days of the ancient Games and would certainly lead to a rewriting of the swim record book."
The assumption that nudity increases speed is unproven, and it may even be that lightweight suits, by streamlining the body and eliminating loose ends, actually help performance. A stronger case for nude sport is the sense of freedom or the esthetic argument, the idea that insofar as sport is a celebration of the physical, it scarcely makes sense to conceal that which is celebrated.
For sport truly in the raw it is necessary to look to the 100,000 social nudists in the U.S., followers of a movement that took root in Germany early in this century based largely on physical culture. Pioneer nudists gathered in the woods for morning calisthenics, placed faith in the curative powers of the sun and abstained from meat and tobacco. In the U.S. nudist clubs were once a target of harassment, but today, with the human body generously displayed on film and even Main Street, what once was so scandalous has come to seem quaint, if not dull.