Special to Page 2
Anyone with even a modicum of good taste knows silver is way cooler than gold, which is an unfortunate barometer of the design sensibilities at the Olympics. Aesthetically speaking, winning a gold medal is sort of like being handed your new uniform after being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks: It's nice and all, but is it really necessary to wear the damn thing? Perhaps some other metal is available, like platinum or chrome? Or tin? Please, anything but that tacky yellow bullion.
Medal metallurgy notwithstanding, Olympic attire has always been a dicey proposition. Since the athletes compete for just 17 days -- and most of them for only a small subset of that period -- there's no time for their garb to build up visual recognition like a conventional uniform. And even if a given outfit happens to be a keeper, it's retired at the end of the Olympiad and replaced with something else at the next one. So the format, by necessity, tends to favor trendy look-at-me fashions instead of classic designs that hold up over time.
Nowadays, of course, the Olympics stand for all sorts of high-minded, progressive principles (i.e., steroids, boring up-close-and-personal TV reports, pretending to love your fellow athletes from funny-sounding foreign countries). But the Games, and their uniforms, used to stand for other things.
Leaving aside the issue of the ancient Greeks, who competed naked -- a subject that Page 2 has already addressed in prurient detail -- the first generation of modern Olympic athletes generally wore white, mainly for reasons of implied aristocracy: Since white gets dirty more easily, it was understood that a late-1800s athlete wearing white was rich enough to afford multiple outfits, first-rate laundry services, or both.
National identity wasn't heavily reflected in Olympic attire until the Berlin Olympics of 1936, when Adolf Hitler tried to the use the Games as a nationalistic platform. Other countries responded with sartorial expressions of cultural pride -- the French wore berets, the Egyptians wore fezzes, and so on. This heritage-driven fashion trend has now given us the Olympics' one truly international sport: making wise-ass remarks about what everyone is wearing at the Opening Ceremonies.
That's what style maven and Uni Watch aide-de-camp Ruth "The Truth" Wedes was doing during last Friday's parade of nations. As the Azerbaijanis marched by, she incisively opined, "They look like stewardesses. No, wait -- rental car agents!" Of the South Africans: "They look like tiramisu, or maybe a layer cake. Definitely dessert-inspired!" Uni Watch had little to add to such trenchant sports commentary, except to find a nugget of irony in the fact that the American outfits had been made by Roots, a Canadian company.
For those who prefer to focus on the actual competitions rather than the parade, a selective sampling of key moments in Olympic apparel history shapes up like this:
1. Martin Sheridan, 1908: We're always hearing how athletes are brave and courageous and all that, but Uni Watch challenges anyone to find a greater profile in courage than Sheridan, who risked ridicule at the London Olympics by wearing sock garters (and won the discus competition while doing so).
2. Abe be Bikila, 1960, and Zola Budd, 1984: In this era of high-tech sneakers, Uni Watch salutes any runner willing to compete barefoot. (Memo to Michael Johnson: You might want to consider this look, because those gold shoes are almost as tacky as a gold medal.)
3. Peggy Fleming, 1968: The chartreuse skating dress that Fleming wore in Grenoble, France, was designed and sewn by her mother, who believed the color would curry favor with the French fans because of the local monks who made Chartreuse liqueur. Alas, it didn't occur to Mama Fleming that the fabric's vaguely mucus-ish hue would also lead to all those "Peggy Phlegm" jokes.
4. Tommy Smith and John Carlos, 1968: There are boxing gloves, batting gloves, and hockey gloves. But no two gloves have ever had a greater impact on Olympic history then the two that Smith and Carlos thrust upward in their black-power salute during the 200-meter medal ceremony at Mexico City.
5. Cathy Freeman, 2002: Who would've thought you could run faster by wearing more clothing? Freeman, in her full-body Nike Swift suit, showed it was true at Sydney.
Although the ever-quaint equestrian competitors still insist on wearing traditional attire, and the beach volleyballers are doing their best to sustain the ancient spirit of nude competition, Freeman's full-body outfit appears to have been a bellwether for many other Olympians (including the Canadian rowing team, which, according to Nike, will gain a whopping eight-foot advantage from their new hooded outfits). Other ultra-modern developments include track shoes that keep a runner's heel off the ground, strapless swimming goggles that stay put with waterproof adhesive, and even vibration-reducing socks.
But these high-tech shenanigans grow tiresome -- seriously, can aerodynamic mouthguards be far behind? It's time the Olympics went old-school. With that in mind, the next Olympian who dons a simple T-shirt, or basic track shorts, or anything that doesn't feature a corporate sportwear logo, will receive an official Uni Watch gold medal -- after we've had it silver-plated, of course.
When not obsessing about the minutiae of sports uniforms, Paul Lukas writes about the minutiae of food, travel, pop culture, and business history for various publications. Archives of his pre-Page 2 "Uni Watch" columns are available here and here. Got a uni-related question or comment for him? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.