It's happening. Despite strong criticism from home and abroad, the initially postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics are set to open on Friday. Quite what will transpire between now and the closing ceremony as Covid-19 numbers in Japan continue to rise remains to be seen, but for now, there’s a couple of weeks of sport to look forward to.
It’s difficult to think of other Games that have been cloaked in such hesitancy. The online discourse on the rights and wrongs of this tournament going ahead could extend into a tome so, on that note, we’ll stick to the most important unimportant thing, namely the clothes.
A lot of ado has been made about who will be designing and wearing what uniforms this year (Telfar, Les Benjamins, and SKIMS are some of the names involved), making it one of the most freshly dressed groups of athletes to take the world stage in a long time. Traditionally, the Olympics hasn't served as a style barrage like some sports, but, as the following will attest, that's not to say there haven't been any wow moments over the years.
Find some of our best, weirdest, and most memorable Olympics-style moments in no particular order below.
Michael Johnson's Golden Nike Shoes (Atlanta 1996)
The year is 1996, and Michael Johnson is going into the Atlanta Olympic Games 200m and 400m titles having yet to win a gold medal. You'd think that, after failing to qualify for the 200m final at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, most performers would be keen to take any measure that alleviates the pressure and media circus surrounding them, right? Not Johnson, who insisted Nike gild his spikes.
The then world's fastest man played an influential role in the design of the shoe, asking Nike to come up with something that was lightweight and stable, but also interacted with the track. "I wanted it to look very cool," he explained. "We worked for about a year and a half to make this shoe accomplish all of those objectives. Then I asked Tobie Hatfield: Can you make it in gold? And he said: ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ I don’t think they really thought I was serious. Then it kind of dawned on them: He’s really going to wear gold shoes.”
The extra motivation worked, and Johnson went on to win both races. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, his 200m record was eventually beaten by Usain Bolt, himself wearing gold PUMA spikes.
Ryan Lochte's Grill (London 2012)
There was a time when it was difficult to think of a more obnoxious public personality than the drip-resistant Ryan "Jeah!" Lochte. Yet looking back, I can't help but think of him as a kind of proto, ultimately harmless foreshadowing of true white boy evil that was to come in the shape of Jake Paul and his ilk.
Described by Jezebel as "America's Sexiest Douchebag," Lochte's fashion sense is what I can only describe as Magic Mike-core. Think bow-ties, fedoras, and jeans so tight they would surely render any swimmers impotent (sorry). Lochte Nation was so sartorially challenged that he became a sort of phenom among blogs; a one-man cottage industry that drew clicks through sheer morbid curiosity
Lochte's most infamous moment (well, until Lochtegate) came when, having won gold at the London 2012 Olympics, he flashed a grin on the podium and revealed a $25,000 stars-and-stripes grill designed by Johnny Dang. Some took it better than others. As one designer told the New York Times: "I was really a bit upset when I saw it. It is so non-harmonious with his image and with the sport that he represents. Swimming is such an elegant sport. It is all about softness, like the softness of the water.”
This year, there won't be any Lochte, after the now veteran superstar failed to make the cut.
Cathy Freeman's Nike Swift Suit (Sydney 2000)
Cathy Freeman's otherworldy space suit is bound to evoke nostalgic Y2K memories in any millennial who sat themselves down in front of the TV when the sprinter won gold in the 400m at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
The Nike Swift suit came around after Eddy Harber, an Englishman who had been working on body armor for the British military, received a call from Nike's newly formed innovation department, asking him to come up with a second skin for their athletes. As far back as 1996, Nike had advanced this effort by exploring the theory that applying textures to a runner could drop aerodynamic drag, and the Sydney Olympics was set to be its big debut. At the time, it was utterly novel, the aesthetic more in line with some kind of vigilante superhero than an Olympian.
"We measured the speed of each part of her body and the frontal area, the size of each body part, and then in a wind tunnel we tested all kinds of fabric and then assigned different fabrics to different parts of her body," said Harber.
According to one expert who worked on the yellow and green suit, it resulted in a drag reduction of five to 10 percent. "Ultimately, I simply enjoyed the way it made me feel when I ran, even though I had a reservation about the way it made me look," said Freeman. Who says you need to look good to perform well?
The Unified Team's Winter Olympics Trenchcoats (Albertville 1992)
It might not be performance wear, but how can you mention anything related to Olympics fashion without touching on the Unified Team's Balenciaga-esque trenchcoats at the 1992 Winter Olympics? Even Demna Gvasalia, master of the shoulder design, would be proud of these pieces.
Competing as a joint team consisting of six of the 15 former Soviet republics — Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Armenia — it's still unclear how the Dick Tracy look came about, but given the Cold War had only ended one year before, perhaps they were taking advantage of surplus leftover from a disbanded KGB unit.
Ato Boldon's OVERTHETOP Sunglasses (Sydney 2000)
I know, you've probably seen these appear on your Instagram feed on at least 4,000 separate occasions by now. In fact, thanks to recent co-signs from the likes of Kerwin Frost, Oakley's disruptive shades are more popular in 2021, at least among cool kids, than they were when Ato Boldon donned them at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Like Freeman's Nike Swift Suit, images of Boldon wearing the eyewear quickly became some of the Games' most memorable images. Avant-garde to the point of jarring, the sunnies unsurprisingly failed to find a mainstream audience (albeit, somewhat randomly, they did find love among the likes of Flavor Flav and Swedish golfer Jarmo Sandelin).
With their red lenses and an ergonomic frame that wrapped up and over the head, Oakley drove home the point that OVERTHETOPs were not for the faint of heart when it struck a collaborative deal with the Blade II movie. In the Wesley Snipes flick, zombies can be seen wearing a modified pair at different points.
Some collectors were miffed when the OVERTHETOPs re-released this year for the hefty price of $2,000, a steep mark-up from their original retail price of $185. Funnily enough, they weren't even Oakley's strangest product of the era — that gong goes to the infamous Medusa goggles, a favorite of Tool's Maynard James Keenan.
Linford Christie's PUMA Contact Lenses (Atlanta 1996)
He might not have worn them on the track, but British sprinter Linford Christie put PUMA in the headlines across the world when he wore big pouncing cat contact lenses prior to the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Christie’s stunt was a means of getting around the fact that Reebok was the tournament’s official sponsor, and to this day is still cited by experts as a perfect example of ambush marketing. “You get the back page of the tabloids; it’s the sort of advertising you can’t buy,” said a PUMA spokesman at the time. “What we were trying to do was maximize our contract with a sportsman at the peak of his exposure.”
Christie wasn’t the only one indulging in some ambush marketing that year: Nike, which made a point of positioning itself as the underdog that stood against official partners, swamped the visibility of Reebok by handing out flags of logos and building their own athletes village next door to the official one. In 2010, there was a crackdown, with legislation placing greater responsibility on individuals to prove their innocence if accused of violating the rules.
Lithuania's Grateful Dead Basketball Uniforms (Barcelona 1992)
The Dream Team might have won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but it was the Lithuanian basketball team that won the hearts of the people, en route to finishing third. What made the newly-formed country’s team so interesting wasn’t its style of play, but rather the fact that iconic rock band The Grateful Dead partially funded the team’s participation in the tournament. I mean, imagine a cult band sponsoring a team with tie-dye tees at this year’s games? The ruling committee would have a fit.
As the story goes, The Dead were visited by Lithuania’s star guard Sarunas Marciulionis and assistant coach Donnie Nelson as they jammed in a garage in San Francisco. Marciulionis had pledged much of his Golden State Warriors salary to help his country fund the 1992 Olympic participation. Inspired by the player’s selfless act, the Grateful Dead wrote the Lithuanian basketball association a check for $5,000 and gave them permission to sell official Grateful Dead merchandise. A spokesperson for the band, Dennis McNally, claimed that 20,000 shirts were sold in the first week. The merchandise revenue was eventually used to fund the team’s participation in the next Olympics, in 1996 in Atlanta, but the 1992 Olympics will forever be remembered for those tie-dyed Grateful Dead Lithuanian basketball team T-shirts.
These days, it’s become something of a streetwear collectors grail, made famous by one Jonah Hill.
Lithuania's Issey Miyake Uniforms (Barcelona 1992)
It wasn't just the Grateful Dead that answered Lithuania's SOS call at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Issey Miyake picked up the phone all the way from Japan, too. Even better, the legendary designer offered to provide his high-tech pleated uniforms for gratis.
Miyake has previously gone on record as saying he never expected the call to design for his home country, mainly because the Japanese sports establishment was way too set in their conservative ways. As a newly liberated country following the fall of the Soviet Union, Lithuania offered a whole lot more freedom for expression. For an envelope-pushing avant-gardist like Miyake, it was like being given the keys to a kingdom he could design in his own right.
The caped uniforms turned out as crazy as you'd expect, featuring proprietary fabrics cut with a new technique involving hot metal, new oversize zippers, and a novel method of his famous pleatings. On the reverse side, there were five Olympic rings clad in the country's colors, while a collar featuring the national flag could be rolled up (according to stories at the time, Miyake was initially hesitant to use the flag because of his distrust of nationalism, but eventually ceded, given the context of the occasion). As a piece de resistance, he also threw in some metallic baseball caps. There was no doubting who was the most stylish at these games.
"[Miyake's] was a slightly rebellious fashion, but with a fair amount of self-advertisement and wit thrown in," wrote a New York Times piece. "You need only walk to the opposite end of Omotesando from the Hanae Mori store to one of his boutiques, to see that he works in a cerebral moonscape that can be playful, severe, and, when he wants, delightfully impractical."
One year later, and evidently buoyed by the project, Miyake included unofficial Olympics uniforms in his SS93 collection, before going as far as to declare that sportswear was the clothing of the future.
Burton's Anti-Uniform for the US Snowboarding Team (Vancouver 2010)
Trust snowboarding powerhouse Burton to bring a smattering of Americana fashion to the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
In 2006, the Vermont-based company raised eyebrows when it created New York Yankees-inspired uniforms for the US snowboarding team to wear at the games in Turin. Four years later it went a step further, bringing plaid into the fold with star-spangled suits and worn-out bootcut jeans, both of which arrived reinforced with GORE-TEX technology. Forget world-class athletes — to the unassuming eye, it looked like the kind of get-up you'd expect to see a '90s grunge musician wear.
Yet the getup made sense, checking out nicely with snowboarding's countercultural ethos. "Boardsports, for the most part, are about expressing individuality — that’s what makes them cool,” said Greg Dacyshyn, the company’s creative director. “So the whole uniform thing, you know, it’s a sensitive subject.”
The partnership drew to a close in 2019 when Volcom took over the contract, as announced by, erm, Run the Jewels.
Ed Moses' Glasses (Seoul 1988)
Whereas Ato Boldon's Oakley shades looked like they were discovered on another planet, Edwin Moses' pair could have been stolen from the touring flight case of Elton John.
Rather than a mere affectation, Moses' rhinestone aviators seen at the 1988 Seoul Olympics were a prescription pair that turned dark when outdoors. A gold chain, necklace, silver ring, and bangle completed the track and field legend's unique look, one entirely befitting a maverick who possessed a degree in physics.
Underneath the flamboyant exterior was a truly GOAT-level athlete; a guy who, although not blessed with a natural ability like some, went an unbelievable nine years, nine months, and nine days without losing. What made the achievement even more remarkable was how widespread drug use was among athletes at the time — this eventually leading to Moses taking on the role of US Anti-Doping Agency chairman.
USA Dream Team's Uniforms (Barcelona 1992)
The Dream Team. The greatest sports team ever assembled. What else would you call a line-up featuring Michael Jordan (in his prime), Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, and Larry Bird? The 1992 Barcelona Olympics was the first time NBA players were allowed to participate in the tournament, and not only did the Dream Team coast to victory (the closest game was a 117-85 win against Croatia in the Gold Medal game), but MJ and co.’s god-level status enchanted all of Barcelona. The media, fans, and everybody else lapped up everything Team USA did — both on and off the court (at least everybody but official sponsors Reebok, who were pissed when Nike players such as Jordan covered up their logo with the American flag).
Today, you still see people wearing Dream Team jerseys when Team USA plays, nearly 30 years after the fact. That team photo of Chuck Daly, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson, all with ear-to-ear grins on their faces, is forever etched into the collective memory of American basketball fans. There is no Team USA basketball without the 1992 Dream Team and their historic jerseys.