April 23, 2024
Melinda Head

See the Kit, Focus on the Athlete

Striking the right balance is not always obvious

In less than 100 days, the Summer Olympics in Paris will be held. Interestingly, not much is currently being said about the athletes – the focus is on what they’ll be wearing.

Elite sports, whether at the Olympics or elsewhere, is now very fashion-centric and newsworthy. Performance alone is only part of the mix.

“(For sports apparel retailers) the Olympics are the new fashion week runway.” (Simeon Siegel, Retail Analyst)

According to Statista, the total annual global value of the sports apparel market is about $200 billion. In 2024, 2 events will be held that fans have patiently been waiting 4 years to see: UEFA 2024 (European Football Championship aka Soccer in America) and the Paris Olympics. This double whammy could make it a record-breaking year for the sector, driving up the visibility of sportswear brands and sales.

This year, breaking (dance) at the Paris Olympics, with roots in hip-hop and urban streetwear, will add a whole new dimension to the marketplace.

Perhaps the most fashion-forward athlete ever is tennis-great Serena Williams. She burst upon the conservative white-man’s scene with a fashion approach that caused great commotion. A Nike catsuit worn during the 2018 French Open was subsequently banned, even though the compression it provided was designed to help Williams avoid blood clots associated with pregnancy.

“… it will no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place.” (Bernard Giudicelli, French Tennis Federation President)

Among many other flamboyant outfits, Serena also collaborated with the late Virgil Abloh and his brand, Off White, at the U.S. Open, wearing a beautiful tutu tennis outfit.

Serena Williams revolutionized tennis apparel

Apparel worn by top athletes has important technical requirements, which can be a catalyst for innovation. Like anything new, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In today’s world, good news travels like molasses, bad like lightening. Recent tsunami-like examples include 2024 MLB attire that reveals players’ underwear and women’s track and field shorts that are high cut and downright skimpy.

Nike’s newly designed MLB pants are see-through! Hopefully, combined with undergarments, there will be no “bulging” incidents due to fabric deficiencies, as was experienced by Henrik Rummel during the 2012 London Olympics

The high cut lines of this Nike U.S. Olympic kit for women have been criticized for being “born of patriarchal forces that are no longer welcome or needed to get eyes on women’s sports"

“Hi @europeanwax would you like to sponsor Team USA for the upcoming Olympic Games? Please and thanks.” (Queen Harrison Claye, American hurdler/sprinter)

“This mannequin is standing still and everything’s showing … imagine MID FLIGHT.” (Jaleen Roberts, American Paralympian, track and field)

One of the most famous examples of technological advancement in elite athlete wear is the LZR Racer by Speedo, developed in collaboration with NASA. Despite taking 20 minutes to put on, it both reduced friction with water (drag) and had buoyancy properties that dramatically improved athletes’ performance. Swimmers who wore the LZR Racer at the 2008 Beijing Olympics set astonishing world records, including Michael Phelps who won 8 gold medals and broke world records in all but 1 event. Some referred to the LZR as a form of “technological doping”. Not long thereafter, LZR and other copycat suits were banned for use in competition. Even today, swimwear that contains polyurethane or rubber is forbidden, and compression (which can also improve performance) is strictly controlled.

What next big step will we see in apparel in the Olympics and among elite athletes?  The IOC has just revealed it’s vision for AI.

“AI can help identify athletes and talent in every corner of the world. AI can provide more athletes with access to personalized training methods, superior sports equipment and more individualised programmes to stay fit and healthy. Beyond sporting performance, AI can revolutionize judging and refereeing, thereby strengthening fairness in sport. AI can improve safeguarding in sport. AI will make organising sporting events extremely efficient, transform sports broadcasting and make the spectator experience much more individualised and immersive.” (Thomas Bach, IOC President)

Most of all, I like that fact that:

“Unlike other sectors of society, we in sport are not confronted with the existential question of whether AI will replace human beings. In sports, the performances will always have to be delivered by athletes. The 100 meters will always have to be run by an athlete – a human being. Therefore, we can concentrate on the potential of AI to support the athletes.” (Thomas Bach)

It sounds very exciting. All of it.

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About the Author

A serial entrepreneur, Melinda is a sociologist and statistician who believes there is no currency with greater value than knowledge

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