Uni Watch: The 10 Biggest Uniform Storylines to Look Out for at the Tokyo Olympics

Uni Watch sifted through the entire Olympic universe to pick out the sartorial storylines that are worth your attention

July 21, 2021 5:30 am
The USA women's soccer team showing off their new unis in a warmup game prior to Tokyo Olympics
The USA women's soccer team showing off their new unis in a warmup game prior to Tokyo
Robin Alam/Getty

Ready or not, pandemic or no pandemic, here come the Olympics. They’ll be starting a year late, there won’t be any fans in attendance, some athletes are opting to stay home and the host city is under a state of emergency as its coronavirus cases spike, but the Tokyo Games will nonetheless commence this Friday, July 23, with the opening ceremony scheduled to begin at 7 a.m. EDT.

From a uniform perspective — to say nothing of a uniform assessment perspective — the Olympics always present a bit of a challenge. The way we usually think about sports uniform designs is that they should stand the test of time and keep looking good for years, if not decades. But the Olympics take place over a couple of weeks, some events run just a couple of days and some athletes might appear only once, so the uni designs tend to be flashy and of the moment, engineered to command the stage during the short amount of time they’ll occupy it. If the designs look dated in a year or two, the thinking goes, who cares? Just roll out another set for the next Olympics.

With that framework in mind — and with our fingers crossed that nobody takes home the gold for superspreading — here are 10 uni-related storylines to keep an eye on during the Games, plus a few honorable mentions.

The two uniform designs the USA men's hoops team will be wearing at the Tokyo Olympics
The two designs the USA men’s hoops team will be wearing in Tokyo

1. Team USA Men’s Hoops

The first thing everyone wants to know for any edition of the Summer Olympics is what the American men’s basketball team will be wearing on the hardcourt. This year’s designs are straightforward and visually effective, with the blue design looking particularly sharp. As always, the players’ uniform numbers run from 4 through 15, which is standard for international play, but there’s a special significance to No. 10, which was previously worn in the Olympics by Kobe Bryant. This year it’ll be worn by Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, who idolized Bryant while growing up and is thrilled to be wearing his Team USA number.

USA soccer star Christen Press in one of the team's new Olympic uniforms
USA soccer star Christen Press in one of the team’s new Olympic uniforms

2. Team USA Women’s Soccer

The U.S. men’s national team failed to qualify for the Tokyo Games, so the burden of upholding American soccer glory falls to the women’s squad (just as well, since they’re clearly the better and more exciting team). Their standard white home kit is solid if unspectacular, but their away kit (shown above), which they’ve been wearing for a series of pre-Olympics exhibition matches, is more eyesore than eye candy. Kit outfitter Nike says the red/navy stripe pattern is supposed to evoke a waving flag, but it feels more like a jagged mishmash of colliding stripes and looks particularly awkward from the side and back. Here’s hoping they wear the white kit for most of their matches in Tokyo. (Want a better-looking women’s soccer team to root for? Your friendly uniform columnist suggests Nigeria.)

As always, there will be tiny men on horses
Ralph Lauren

3. The Obligatory Ralph Lauren Mention

Ralph Lauren has been making Team USA’s apparel for the opening and closing ceremonies since 2008. That means we get treated to the biennial chorus of objections saying the outfits are too preppy, too white, too corporate, too whatever. Are these legitimate critiques? Sure — just look at this year’s closing ceremony costumes (shown above), which look like something you’d see down at your local yacht club, and ditto for the opening ceremony outfits (although it’s worth noting that they will have an internal “air-conditioning system” to help athletes fight the Tokyo heat and humidity). But complaining that Ralph Lauren is too preppy is like complaining that water is wet — it comes with the package. Look, here’s the deal: The opening and closing ceremonies are silly but harmless rituals that exist primarily to move merchandise and are watched primarily by people who think of the Olympics as a lifestyle event, not a sports event. That’s why the Lauren designs are always unveiled on The Today Show, not on SportsCenter. Ignore all the fuss and just wait for the real competitions to start. (Want to see what Team USA wore for the opening ceremonies in the pre-Lauren era? Look here.)

The unitard, revived

4. The Australian Women’s Hoops Team

From 1996 through 2008, Australia’s women’s basketball team, known as the Opals, wore one-piece bodysuits instead of the more traditional tank top and shorts. For better or worse, no other country copied this look, so the Aussies had it all to themselves. The bodysuits were scrapped in 2012 but are returning this year, because the Opals’ current players want to dress like the players they grew up idolizing. Traditionalists will howl, but the one-piece uni provides a sleek, dynamic look. Full details here.

Noah Lyles is one of many athletes who plan to protest in Tokyo

5. Noah Lyles’s Black Glove

American sprinter Noah Lyles, the world champion in the 200 meters, has been sending a “Black Lives Matter” message at many of his recent competitions, including last month’s U.S. Olympic team trials, by wearing a fingerless black glove on one hand and raising his gloved fist during pre-race introductions. He’s one of many athletes who may use the Games as a forum for social justice protests, which is an increasingly thorny subject. According to newly issued Olympic guidelines, athletes can “express their views” before and after an event but not during competition, although some athletes have signaled that they may test the limits of those rules. Something to keep an eye on.

6. Team Liberia, Designed by Telfar Clemens

How do you get some attention for your country if your Olympic delegation consists of only five track and field athletes? If you’re Liberia, you get Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens, who’s been a fashion sensation for the past few years, to outfit your team. Technically speaking, this isn’t Clemens’s first foray into the uni-verse, as he recently designed the new uniforms for the White Castle burger chain, but it’s his first time doing sports uniforms, or any kind of performance apparel, and he appears to have leaned into it. As he told The New York Times last month, “They said, ‘Go crazy,’ so I did.” He’s created 70 pieces for the team, including sweats, unitards, duffel bags and track spikes, all with his characteristic design flair. 

Team USA’s first climbing uniforms
The North Face

7. New Sports, New Looks

Four sports will be making their Olympic debuts this year — sports climbing, skateboarding, surfing and karate — so expect to see some new looks out there. Team USA’s climbing togs (shown above), produced by outdoor apparel brand The North Face, look nice and sleek (additional info here), while some of the skateboarding designs are, well, not so sleek (additional info here and here):

A coincidence!

8. Russia’s “Flagless” Uniforms

Technically speaking, Russian athletes will not be permitted to wear the country’s national flag on their Olympic uniforms. In fact, they won’t even be representing Russia, but rather the ROC (short for “Russian Olympic Committee”), and their national anthem won’t be played at any medal ceremonies. It’s all part of a set of doping sanctions that were affirmed earlier this year. But while the flag may be banned from the uniforms, the uni designs feature bold stripes of color that unmistakably simulate the Russian flag. As ROC prexy Stanislav Pozdnyakov said at the uni unveiling earlier this year, “You don’t really need to have a strong imagination. In those uniforms that you saw, our national flag can be seen really, really obviously.” Sneaky.

Will Alice Dearing be allowed to wear her preferred swim cap?

9. Caps for Black Swimmers

If you watch any of the swimming races, take note of the Black competitors. Some of them (like British swimmer Alice Dearing, shown above) wanted to wear the Soul Cap, a product designed specifically for Black swimmers with Afros or other thick, voluminous hairstyles. But FINA, swimming’s international governing body, banned the Soul Cap because it doesn’t “fit the natural form of the head.” After that decision prompted a widespread backlash, FINA said it would review its decision. At press time, this situation was still in flux — stay tuned.


10. Track and Field Footwear

Runners wearing Nike’s latest track spikes, the Dragonfly, have been setting so many records lately that runners sponsored by other shoe companies began to worry that they’d be at a competitive disadvantage. So at last month’s U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team Trials (shown above), runners sponsored by Reebok, Brooks and On actually received permission to wear Nikes — a tacit admission by those companies that their footwear couldn’t compete with the Swoosh. So if you see a runner wearing shoes that appear to be unbranded, there’s a good chance that they’re Nikes with the swoosh blacked out.

Additional Notes

Paul Lukas has a monthly series of Uni Watch pins, the current edition of which is Olympics-themed. If you like this article, you’ll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook, check out his podcast, and sign up for his mailing list so you won’t miss any of his future InsideHook columns. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.

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