Art critic Jonathan Jones reviews athletics in the form of Team GB Olympics hurdler Andy Turner

What does it take to attain the body of a Greek god? Why did he choose such a difficult event?
Jonathan Jones with Andy Turner
On your marks … Jonathan Jones with 110 metre hurdler Andy Turner at the Lee Valley athletic centre. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the
On your marks … Jonathan Jones with 110 metre hurdler Andy Turner at the Lee Valley athletic centre. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the
Jonathan Jones
Sun 15 Jul 2012 14.08 EDT

Standing next to Andy Turner to be photographed, I comment ruefully that it will be a picture of one of Britain's fittest men next to one of its most unfit. This is the socially acceptable version of what I am really thinking: that while I am a mere lumpen mortal, this Olympic hurdler has the body of a Greek god.

The finest ancient Greek statues portray athletes with perfectly proportioned bodies. The amazing Charioteer of Motya, on view this summer at the British Museum, reveals a rippling, sensuous body under a thin tight robe (carved miraculously out of marble). Other Greek athletes were portrayed naked. The sculptor Polykleitos devised the "Canon" of the perfect athletic body, the ideal measurements of the ideal human. I seem to be seeing that ideal come alive as Turner explodes from the starting blocks.

He has been dedicated to athleticism since school – Turner's dad was an 800-metre runner – and at 31, has the flab-free, slender but powerful physique of a man who has been training his body all his life. The London Olympics will be his crowning moment.

We meet on the day the British team is announced and, having read reports about the fraught battle to qualify, I expect him to be nervous – but it's clear he knows he's in. The mood at the training venue in Lee Valley is relaxed, as if the announcement is a moment to take stock and a deep breath.

Turner runs at the training hurdles – lighter than race hurdles but amazingly high. It seems incredible anyone can jump them with such a short run in between and still maintain their speed. Why choose such a difficult event? He says he likes the challenge. Everything about Turner's life appears to be about challenge and discipline: as he observes, you can't exactly go home after training and booze it up in the pub.

Some athletes live like invalids. After morning training, many, I am told, will have a nap before a second session. Turner says he relaxes by spending time with his three daughters, aged seven, five and one. I am fascinated by this mystery of how athletes really live: when Turner started out, he did part-time factory jobs. The lottery, sponsorship and prize money now make it possible for hurdling to be his full-time job. 

Looking around the decent but scarcely luxurious training facility (at 1pm the Olympians and Paralympians have to leave to make way for local schools), I can't help thinking how much money washes around the art world by comparison. This seems a purer culture.

Athleticism is high art. Athletes sculpt their bodies to approach an ideal (although of course, this is no longer seen as some unquestionable absolute, as it was by Polykleitos: across the stadium, a runner is pounding down the track on a prosthetic leg).

What I am thinking as Turner crouches on the blocks, face severe and sinews throbbing, is that athletes are heroes of being human. They show us the extremes of physical achievement we are, or should be, capable of. The ancient Greeks invented both philosophy and athletics – mind and body can both be honed, they thought. As Turner leaps forward, their legacy lives on.

Andy Turner's favourites

Film The Shawshank Redemption

Book Biographies

Singer Tinie Tempah

• See the world's best athletes in action at the Aviva Birmingham Grand Prix on 26 August. For tickets, visit or call 08000 55 60 56

comments (0)

Sign in or create your account to join the discussion.

comments (0)

Sign in or create your account to join the discussion.