In endurance sports, the term “speed goggles” is thrown around a lot to describe a basic rule of attractiveness for athletes: Fast is hot. A competitor who bikes, runs, or swims smoking times is going to look smoking, too—and more so than if you weren’t familiar with his or her accomplishments.
This relation isn’t very surprising. Success is attractive, after all.
In a recent study, though, Erik Postma, a biologist at the University of Zurich, decided to see what would happen if he flipped the old adage on its head: Faster may make you hotter, but does hotter make you faster? What if attractiveness itself somehow signals an innately superior ability to excel in endurance races?
To test the idea, Postma gathered stock portraits of 80 of the world’s top male cyclists taken on the day before they began 2012′s Tour de France. In an an online survey, he asked 816 participants—roughly three-fourths women and one-fourth men, all heterosexual—to rate each competitor’s attractiveness. He gave no information on how each competitor fared in the race.
It’s not being hot that makes someone fast, but the physical signs of someone’s endurance ability that attract us to them in the first place.
On average, the men who were rated as more attractive had also raced better.
At first, this correlation sounds crazy. The notion that having a pretty face somehow, on a physical level, makes a competitor faster is absurd. (You’d see a lot more top athletes with plastic surgery by now if it did, right?) So how is it possible that hotness could predict some kind of physical advantage, even among an almost uniform group of some of the world’s fittest athletes?
Postma suggests the answer may be evolutionary. “Facial attractiveness may signal endurance performance in particular,” he writes. “Indeed, high endurance performance is thought to have been the target of selection in early hominids, as being able to efficiently cover large distances allowed for more efficient hunting, gathering and scavenging, resulting in a number of uniquely human adaptations.”
Because endurance was a valuable trait for hunting and gathering, he explains, it also would have made it a valuable trait for reproduction. As a result, our very notion of what we find attractive may depend more than we think on someone’s ability to go the distance—and our looks could have evolved accordingly.
In this case, it’s not being hot that makes someone fast, then, but the physical signs of someone’s endurance ability that attract us to them in the first place. In other words, we’re always wearing speed goggles, but the lenses work even when we haven’t seen the performance.
There are a few heavy caveats, of course. The correlation doesn’t rule out the idea that an unattractive guy could be the next cycling champion. The cultural benefits of being attractive could play a role alongside the biological ones. And there are other positive physical abilities, besides endurance, that might correlate with attractiveness, as well.
But what the study does suggest is that if everyone says you’re the best looking swimmer on your team, it may be time to practice harder if you keep coming in last.