Body language is a powerful communication tool. Through a simple pose a person can display a range of emotions, from power to pride to grief, without saying a single word.

“We make sweeping judgments and inferences from body language,” social psychologist and author Amy Cuddy said in her viral TED talk. “Those judgments can predict enormously important life outcomes.”

As people who express themselves through motion, athletes in particular have a commanding sense of body language. An image of a sprinter crossing the finish line with their hands flung in the air can send a burst of elation, while looking at a gymnast crouching on the ground can transmit their anguish.

But a closer look at these poses shows that interpreting body language isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. Sometimes, a winning and a losing athlete appear to be posing identically, showing the complex nature of emotions and blurred lines between pain and pleasure involved in athletic competitions.

First, let’s look at the iconic winning pose. In this photo of Carl Lewis winning the men’s 4×100 meter race in Barcelona, Lewis’ arms are spread wide and chest opened up, as if welcoming the entire world into his feat. This expression displays Lewis’ sense of immediate and overwhelming power. His arms make a V—for victory—a symbol that translates across all sports. Whether we’re looking at a boxing or tennis photo, we can almost feel the adrenaline raising them high above their heads or out behind them like wings.

In contrast, an image of Thai boxer Kaeo Pongprayoon shows the athlete splayed across the boxing ring floor with the winner of the match on his feet hovering near him. His arms are raised over his head, but his body is supine creating the inverse of the victory pose. He is opening himself up not for victory but for defeat.

However, reading the signs of body language is not so simple. Petter Northug adopted the same pose after winning – not losing — the 50km cross country skiing race in 2010.

In other photos, it’s the ambiguous expression in the subjects’ body language that captivates us. We see shoulders hunched, hands balled into fists, faces scrunched: are these the signs of the pain of loss or the ecstasy of the win?

Australian runner Cathy Freeman, sitting cross-legged on the track, appears to steady herself after a blow to the chest. Her eyes squeezed shut, she seems to be searching for air, or meaning, after winning the gold medal.

This image of Japanese wrestler Kenichi Yumoto sitting on his shins, spine curled over, his forehead touching the floor, at first glance may appear to be Yumoto savoring his win, but in fact he is recoiled in an act of personal protection after losing his match.

Facial expressions can be as hard to decipher as their corporal counterparts. What emotions are behind these tears and moans?

Sometimes the expression is crystal clear, like Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce’s in this photo taken in her moment of triumph at the 2012 Olympics.

While we relish an individual athlete’s successes, a different kind of emotion arises from seeing the physical signs of love and respect among members of an Olympic team. Linked arms and embraces are signs of a group sharing the burden of the high stakes, the bliss of achieving the unthinkable, and sometimes just pure physical exhaustion.

The iconic imagery of these athletes reminds us that the Olympics are arenas in which our deepest human emotions—fear, joy, empathy—are expressed in physical terms that both inspire awe, and resonate within our own bodies.


See more of the agony and ecstasy from Rio 2016:


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