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"!"
April 16, 1973
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.
The change in attitude has had a mixed effect. The American Sunbathing Association, by far the biggest nudist organization, says that nudism is growing by 10% a year but admits that the growth is unstable, with many people joining out of curiosity and then quitting when that curiosity is satisfied. Nor was business stimulated by the ASA's approach to public relations which, on occasion, seemed borrowed from those other sun worshipers, the Hopis, who have been known to smash the cameras of tourists photographing tribal sun dances.
The ASA has had a recent change of heart and now speaks grandly of competing for "the recreation dollar." It has taken to distributing booklets that breezily seek to allay many fears about nudism ("perhaps you have a surgical scar...") and has begun running "Dare to go Bare" ads in magazines. As part of this same campaign the organization quit its headquarters in Mays Landing, N.J. and moved to Orlando, Fla., a city frankly selected because it was to be the home of Disney World.
"We knew that Disney World would be drawing 10 million people a year," explains Ralph Catino, the ASA's amiable administrative assistant. "We hoped that a lot of them would stop by our offices and get interested in nudism." The idea that nudism and Walt Disney might appeal to the same audience is not all that farfetched. Nudists tend to be middle-aged and Middle-American people who place a premium on wholesomeness, family and fresh air.
But Orlando has been a disappointment. Although Catino and his secretaries have remained clothed, their knotty-pined offices, located on a busy street between a driving school and the Florida Chiropractic Association, for a time were subjected to numerous "inspections" by police, fire and health officials. The harassment suggests that acceptance is still to be won in full in central Florida. As for the expected flood of tourists, local billboard companies refuse to carry ASA ads, and few even know the ASA is there. Catino, reflecting on the move to Orlando, says with brave humor, "We overlooked the fact that Disney made his money by putting pants on Mickey Mouse."
The ASA also has faced opposition within its own ranks. Some members regard the recent promotional campaign as too little and too late. The detractors include Olive Dell Owner Reg Manning, who last year withdrew from the ASA and helped found the rival United Leisure Foundation. The growing ULF, with 34 clubs (vs. the ASA's 130), offers group health insurance, tours to the West Indies and a monthly newspaper Bare in Mind. Puns on that order are usual in nudism. There is a Florida club called Bareskin Lodge and a road sign at a club in Minnesota reads CAUTION: BARES CROSSING. And bear tattoos on buttocks are not unknown.
But the sense of change at Olive Dell goes beyond the creation of the ULF. "We're trying to get away from the idea that nudism is a cult," explains Hal O'Neill, a former ASA president who has transferred his allegiance to the new group. "That's why we now say 'nudist club' or 'nudist park' instead of 'nudist colony.' We are interested in the broad social aspects of nudism rather than in the physical aspects. We like to think that the absence of clothes makes us friendlier and more open, and that we're not so interested in how much money the next fellow has. We think we communicate better with one another."
But progress at Olive Dell, as in nudism generally, is slow. Manning vows to spruce up his club's facilities, but the place could still pass for a campground. There are a few scattered cabins for those who make their homes at the club, but most members show up only on weekends, pitching tents or staying in campers. Either way, Reg Manning searches for gimmicks that will keep customers interested. It was in such a quest for activities that he founded the Nudist Olympics in 1965. The Games were for adults and drew competitors from nudist clubs throughout the West. The track was laid out and bleachers installed, and some years crowds of 500 turned out to cheer the athletes who competed in events ranging from the triple jump to the "marathon," the latter judiciously mapped out to minimize the chances of runners straying beyond Olive Dell's borders. Then interest declined. By 1970 the number of entries had dwindled to 15, and Manning scrapped the Nudist Olympics, leaving only the children's version over Easter weekend.
But most of the adults who showed up at Olive Dell at Easter time seemed happy just to sunbathe. While the Nudist Olympics took place out of view, large numbers of people, their motionless bodies unadorned by so much as a fig leaf, sprawled at all angles on the terrace in front of Olive Dell's clubhouse. A few yards away was a steamy, glass-enclosed pool, a facility uncluttered by the need for cabanas. There was also a concrete block restaurant known as Cafe Sans Culottes. Inside, some played cent-a-point pinochle. Others ate hamburgers and groped with the dilemma of where to place their napkins. Nobody had to worry about where to stash money. The cafe grants credit, a policy proclaimed by a sign on the wall: ONLY KANGAROOS HAVE POCKETS. YOU DON'T NEED TO BE A KANGAROO.
There were special events scheduled on this particular weekend besides the Olympics: an Easter-egg hunt, an Easter parade (the men cheered and whistled approval while the women modeled outlandish flower-bedecked bonnets) and a religious service. The Rev. LaRue Watson, a retired minister, conducted prayers standing on a hilltop with a commanding view of abrupt canyons for miles around. Mr. Watson, a spindly little octogenarian, wore only a green eyeshade.
Though Olive Dell's clientele no longer seems very athletically inspired, nudism has not altogether lost its old concern with physical culture. For example, nude skiing is popular in the Bavarian Alps, and Godiva-style horseback riding—the people are bareback—is featured at Colorado's Mountain Air Ranch. And everywhere, even at Olive Dell, there is volleyball. This sport originally found favor among nudists because it required no facilities other than a ball and a net strung between trees and because it accommodated players of different levels of skill at the same time. Today nudism is probably second only to the beaches of Southern California in developing fine volleyball players. Some have gone on to make All-Service teams, and two nudist clubs, the Running Bares of Burlington, Wis., and Fort Lauderdale's Seminole Health Club, compete fully clothed in AAU matches. The caliber of nudist volleyball is highest in Florida. Many of the state's AAU teams have nudists in their lineups; one competitor is the player-coach of the University of Florida club.
A vigorous sport of this kind raises the question of whether nudists should wear supporting garments. Though doctors consider it wise, nudists seem to feel that the human body is sufficiently well constructed to protect itself.
It was the moment at the Nudist Olympics for the 100-yard dash for 10-and 11-year-old girls. Three naked figures were at the starting line, poised to run. The absence of clothing, not to mention numbered uniforms, posed a problem of identification. The girls at the starting line made one yearn even for the small considerations found in school-yard basketball, where players at least divide themselves into shirts and skins.
It was necessary to look instead for distinguishing characteristics. For example, Verda, on the inside, wore red fingernail polish and pigtails. Gale, in the middle, wore hair clips and sneakers decorated with smiley faces. Laurie, on the outside, would run with brown hair flowing. The whistle sounded and the field was away, the girls' rib cages straining against flesh and veils of dust forming behind them. One figure moved swiftly ahead. No flashes of nail polish, no hair clips, no smiley faces. This could be only Laurie. Even before she reached the finish she smiled triumphantly.
Later Laurie Brenner reflected on the pleasures of nude sport. Tomboyishly pretty, brown-eyed and bronzed and about to be a woman, she said, "I like the feeling of the air on me. You don't have to worry about clothes sticking to you or ripping."
Laurie also won the 25-and 50-yard dashes and might have dominated the Games but for Alfred Neubauer, who excelled in swimming and other skills, including the high jump. To avoid injuries in the high-jump pit, which consisted of a crossbar and two uprights embedded in auto tires, the children were instructed to put on clothes, and the flowering of jeans and T shirts created a surreal scene: a nude audience watching clothed performers.
On Sunday afternoon an awards ceremony was held. The holiday weekend was almost over, and a swarm of people, many of them dressed to go home, gathered to applaud the children. Absent was Nada O'Connell, who was in a nearby office phoning results to local newspapers as casually as if she were reporting homemakers' awards instead.
As readers of the San Bernardino Sun-Telegram have already been informed, Laurie Brenner and Alfred Neubauer, with six blue ribbons each, split the $50. The prize was donated by United Leisure Foundation, which could scarcely have anticipated the use to which Laurie, for one, intended to put the money.
"I think I'll spend it on clothes," she said, discussing her windfall on the pool deck. "On some mini-dresses. I need them for school."
"You could use sandals, too," added her mother, who had joined her.
Laurie nodded gravely. "I know, and I need some shorts and pants." Perhaps they were too absorbed to appreciate the irony, but as mother and daughter, both nude, stood there assessing the wardrobe needs of the co-champion of the Nudist Olympics, neither so much as cracked a smile.