Anthropology was my undergraduate minor and the discipline is a beautiful one; the kind that touches you deep inside to the core of your humanity and self-understanding. It was enlightening to learn about how people, places and principles make up the world as we know it. One of my favorite focuses was on culture: how it is not boxed, how it is not bound and how it is essentially a contact sport. Now, tie that to Ryan Lochte on the Olympic Men’s 200m backstroke Final podium: he’s just bagged a bronze, perhaps not well enough for the gold, but sure good enough for some diamonds.
Because London2012 is pure business for its participating athletes, I did not expect to see grillz flossed in the thick of the tournament. And if you’ve followed his smile carefully, you’d know that I’m referring to Ryan Lochte. I was shocked to see him flashing the bar of bling as he smiled during his poolside walk!
For one, I have never seen a professional athlete don a mouthpiece other than for protective purposes, so my perceptive sporting culture was boggled by the display. Whilst the concept of decorating one’s teeth is evident from as early as the 1500’s, I associated the grill with American culture, perhaps due to birth-right naivety that assumes a USA Midas touch which turns rocks to diamonds. Additionally, the direction to which this takes my perceptions is to that of a 21st century hip-hop culture of bragging, opulence and excess. Within that hip-hop culture, I found that my views on the grill had become shackled to the male form, one usually of African ancestry, dressed in sagging pants and a bold belt and an interesting reference to female counterparts as ‘shawty’ or ‘bee.’
I – and surely not alone – was wrong to forget that culture is not a fixed arrangement between people, places or principles; granted, this is an easy fact to forget in a setup like the Olympics where nationalism takes preference over anything and anyone else. But moreover, I was wrong because Ryan Lochte simply proved me so. He (somewhat) impressed me at the same time: young, white male, donning grillz rep’ing his national flag on them and putting a spin on culture’s confines, with a million dollar smile.