In All Their Glory


In Norway two years ago, the Americans circled the arena in wool Stetsons and sheepskin boots. The Swiss skied in get-ups that resembled Swiss cheese.

Now it's Atlanta's turn, and fashion snobs are once again wondering what sort of sartorial atrocities might be unleashed on the viewing public during the opening pageant, medal ceremonies and various competitions.

When it comes to Olympic uniforms, elegance and understatement sometimes get trampled by politics, space-age technology and crass commercialism.

The result--for U.S. athletes--is usually some kind of stars-and-stripes motif that looks like Old Glory run through a Cuisinart.

"If you love red, white and blue, I guess you're a happy camper," says Mel Stewart, a 1992 gold medalist in swimming. "And I admit it is pretty exciting when you first start wearing the uniform. When you're walking through the [Olympic processing center] and they're sizing you, your heart is racing a little. But by the last day, you're looking for anything that doesn't look like a flag."

Small wonder. American athletes usually find themselves inundated with such apparel. The loot for each competitor this summer is a grocery cart or two heaped with clothing, jewelry, sunglasses, watches, cosmetics, calculators, hair dryers, cameras and more.

"You could come to Atlanta naked," says U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Mike Moran, "and have everything you'll need" after going through the arrival center.

The question is whether you'd want it.

Something about the Olympics seems to incite temporary fashion insanity. How else to explain innocent Americans appearing on the world stage in uniforms that feature Panama hats, two-tone leather wingtips, Spiderman-inspired ski suits or track shoes that borrow from Stealth bomber technology?

Perhaps in keeping with that frightening tradition, this year's official U.S. Olympic outfitter is none other than Sara Lee. Fortunately, the corporation known for frozen desserts also makes L'Eggs hosiery, Playtex bras, Hanes underwear, Isotoner gloves and Champion athletic wear.

North Carolina-based Champion anted up $40 million for exclusive rights to dress the American team for opening ceremonies, news conferences and medal ceremonies.

As is customary, the parade costumes worn during opening pageants are top secret (perhaps to prevent pregame mocking by the media). But the award suits have been modeled. Designed by committee, they feature a large, stylized flame on the jacket front and three big stars on the sleeves. Sewn into the collar in gold thread is the message: "We salute you, the participant, as you represent our country in Atlanta at the centennial Olympics."

This year, each athlete had to sign a contract promising not to hide the Champion logo, ashappened in Barcelona four years ago when Nike shill Michael Jordan slapped an American flag over the Reebok emblem on his official award suit.

Uniforms for actual competition are chosen by the national governing bodies for each sport. Champion will provide outfits for the U.S. basketball and volleyball teams. Clothing for other American teams is coming from such companies as Adidas, Reebok and Nike.

Creating Olympic clothing isn't easy. In addition to dealing with unusual shapes and sizes (such as Shaquille O'Neal's 22EE shoes and weightlifter Mark Henry's XXXXXXL jerseys), designers also have to grapple with unusual political and marketing considerations.

When JCPenney style guru Henry Grethel developed a red, white and blue astronaut-like parade ensemble for the 1992 Games, the U.S. Olympic Committee rejected the design for fear that its traditional color scheme might attract terrorist attacks. Grethel went back to the drawing board and came up with an Italian-inspired wardrobe in a palette of cranberry and purple-navy.

For the 1996 Games, Reebok shot videos of the Olympic track in Atlanta to devise a neon green shoe trim that would stand out against the red running surface. (It also created a wild, hypnotic "spin design" for the competition uniforms it is providing to teams from 60 countries.)

"We want viewers to say, 'Whoa, what's that?' " when the shoes appear on television, a company representative told the Boston Globe.


Outfitting Olympic athletes used to be a simpler affair. A few decades ago, plain uniforms were the norm for competition and collecting medals.

A 1960 photo of boxer Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali) on the medal podium shows him and the other winners in white shorts and shirts. Other uniforms of the past were similarly ordinary.

The 1970s brought moments of excess--notably the garish red, white and blue swimsuits worn by Mark Spitz and his teammates--but the most drastic changes came after the 1984 games in Los Angeles.

Part of the shift was technological.

"During the 1930s and even into the 1950s, competitive outfits were baggy, woolly and in some cases leather," USOC spokesman Moran says. "The old swimming outfits were like wearing a robe into the pool."

Today's uniforms are made of lightweight, space-age materials. Reebok, for instance, is equipping some 1996 sprinters with shoes constructed from a carbon-fiber material designed for the Stealth bomber.

But other changes are driven by the Almighty Dollar.

"This is not your grandfather's International Olympic Committee," Moran acknowledges. "We're now in league with corporate sponsors."

Rules that used to prevent Olympic athletes from accepting payment for endorsing or wearing products began to disappear in the '80s, he says. Competitors also can collect USOC stipends for winning medals. (In Atlanta, a gold medal is worth $65,000.)

The money keeps athletes in training. "It's no accident that this [U.S.] team is six years older, on average, than the L.A. team [in 1984]," Moran says.

Two decades ago, a wrestler like 35-year-old Bruce Baumgartner probably would have competed in the Olympics once, then quit the sport to get a regular job, Moran says. Now, thanks to corporate money, he and other athletes can prolong their Olympic careers.

Clothing and shoe companies have understandably jumped at what one Reebok executive calls the "unparalleled global marketing opportunity" represented by outfitting an Olympic team. (The estimated viewing audience is several billion worldwide.)


Not everyone thinks the corporate sponsorship craze has been a fashion minus. Sure, other nations have enlisted designers like Giorgio Armani to do uniforms for lesser competitions (heck, even the Chinese army is now being outfitted by Pierre Cardin), but "those name designers have been looking to America . . . as the country most known for adapting sportswear into daily life," says Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Jim Moore, fashion director at GQ magazine, suggests having top American designers compete--"like architects submitting designs for buildings"--to create Olympic outfits, especially for opening ceremonies.

But former athlete Stewart, despite his disdain for most Olympic fashion, isn't as critical of opening ceremony garb.

Those uniforms, along with the ones worn to receive medals, "are your most prized possessions," he says. "You put them in your closet and put plastic over them and look at them sometimes and smile to yourself."

Even if they're cheesy looking?

"Hey," he says, "sometimes, you've gotta be sentimental about your cheese."

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