When the uniforms for the Jamaican Olympic team were presented in June, the world had its first glimpse at the Cedella Marley for Puma collection; and it took place on a runway. This is no coincidence; the link between high fashion and the ultimate sporting contest is stronger than you might expect. Indeed, for many countries, the unveiling of the team's official uniform is the first step towards the winner's podium.
Among the suited-and-booted teams this year, there is the United States in preppy, popped-collar Ralph Lauren; the Italians in national-anthem-emblazoned coats by Armani; the French equestrian team in Hermès; and, of course, the Jamaicans: the women in black and yellow, leaf-print skirts and the men in army green, "Buffalo Soldier button downs," embroidered inside with the words "Positive Vibrations."
Spain's Olympic uniform for the 2012 summer games, however, hasn't been received quite so positively. In fact, the team's Russian-designed, ketchup and mustard-coloured kits have prompted laughter heard around the world.
"Ah, but they're just outfits," you might think. And that's probably what the Spanish Olympic Committee initially assumed too, when they were presented with free uniforms and a €250,000 sponsorship from Russian company BoscoSport. But those opening ceremony ensembles convey much more than just a country's colours, bringing with them implications that go beyond just one lap around the track.
If the reaction of the Spanish public is any indication, then this couldn't be truer, as the uniform's release instigated national rage. Spaniards lashed out as if they might be forced - against their will - to wear the very same thing. Slinging insults like shot putters, people called the looks "tacky" and "shameful," photoshopping pictures of the Olympic mannequins next to battle-ready Power Rangers.
The reaction of the Spanish makes sense because, these days, Olympic uniforms - estimated to be seen by over one billion people around the world - are about more than just the athletes. Says Suzanne Timmins, fashion director of Hudson's Bay Company, the company responsible for Team Canada's kits: "Design of Olympic uniforms has changed radically over the last two events. It used to really be a costume. Now it's a reflection of fashion." A reflection of an entire nation's fashion, to be exact. With Olympians serving as a country's athletic representatives, their attire equally epitomises their homeland's aesthetics.
Stylishness aside, the connection created by a team's clothing can't be understated - especially on a patriotic level. A bond between fans and their country is necessary to rally support for the national team and uniforms facilitate this unity. It's this unification that gold medallist swimmer Libby Trickett kept in mind when co-designing the Australian Olympic team's gear. Regarding the designs, she said, "I wanted something that spoke to the fact that we are a unique group…Something that athletes would be proud to put on and represent their country in."
The need for athletes to feel proud in their uniforms is indeed more of a game-changer than designer Stella McCartney may have anticipated, as her creations for the British team were met with public disproval. Contrary to the Spaniards, it seems that not including enough red is reason to cry foul. McCartney's decision to feature a blue Union Jack resulted in what many felt was too little red, a detail that could very well make a difference. Explains Dr. Victor Thompson of the British Psychological Society, "Professional athletes are conscious of the look of what they wear - the way it represents what they do, the level they do it at, their country and so on.
When it comes to performance, how we perceive ourselves - and how others perceive us - can bruise more than just egos. It's something experts have labelled enclothed cognition - the psychological effect our clothing has on us. Studies show that our attire changes our mental state, and ultimately our abilities. Just as with the British uniforms, even simply wearing red - a colour typically associated with dominance and importance - is said to trigger better athletic performance. (Think Tiger Woods, who always wears his trademark red polo shirt on the final day of a tournament.)
In Spain's case, while the Russian-made uniform might be just as red as its designers' blushing faces, the fact is, the uniform doesn't represent the country. Two of Spain's top fashion industry associations, Association of Spanish Fashion Designers (ACME) and Fedecon, vehemently spoke out against the designs, calling them, "completely unfortunate, as they don't in any way represent the concept or image that our country's fashion industry wishes to transmit." Adds ACME President Modesto Lomba, "Spain's athletes are the best in the world, but they will be the worst dressed."
With no one rooting them on, it's likely that the initial outfits meant for Spain's national team could set Olympic records of their own - and not in a good way. "To the extent that an athlete identifies strongly with the country, wearing their countries' uniform could increase performance," says Dr. Adam Galinsky, a professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, who recently led a study on enclothed cognition. "If the uniform is associated with controversy or no longer symbolises the country, then it could hurt performance."
Fortunately, the real games have still yet to begin, leaving Spain time to reverse their error and get back in the competition, both physically and visually - a new attempt at the ensemble is even apparently in the works. A smart move since, as Galinsky says, "The key is the symbolic meaning of the uniform for the wearer." And while Spain was reported to have saved up to €8 million with their originally outsourced attire, perhaps they've realised that you can't put a price on a country's self and global image. Or, ultimately, on its performance.
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