With the Olympics almost upon us, all eyes will be on London to deliver what promises to be an unforgettable spectacle. But it is not just those with a keen eye for sport that will be showing an interest, as the greatest show on earth throws up the intriguing prospect of sport, politics and even fashion coming together to provide a fascinating fortnight of entertainment. Counting down the days until London 2012, and in honour of our upcoming Gold, Silver and Bronze issue, PHOENIX looks back at some of the more memorable clothing-related moments that caused a stir at Olympics past and present.

1. Adidas launches Team GB kit for London 2012; people get upset

(Image: Stella McCartney for Adidas)

You can’t please everybody. And when it comes to the Olympics, it seems you can’t please anybody.

Too expensive, too busy, not busy enough, ticket fiasco, rubbish logo. Given the barrage of complaints already doing the rounds around just about everything to do with London 2012, the launch of the new Team GB kit was hardly going to be a unanimous success.

But when the kit, created by Stella McCartney on behalf of Adidas, was eventually launched to an inevitable fanfare, it didn’t take long before the grievances of an entire nation were aired on news channels and social networking sites up and down the country.

‘Too blue’, said the public, demanding to see more red. “Oh dear”, said Bradley Wiggins, the cyclist, effectively turning on his own team, before quickly deleting his comments on Twitter.

Hurdler Andy Turner took things up a notch, cheekily endorsing Adidas’ fierce rivals Nike in a display of modern day blasphemy: “I’m undecided, looks….ok. (Should have a swoosh rather than stripes too)”.

A mountain out of a molehill, I’m sure you’ll agree. But when, just days after the launch, an investigation conducted by the Independent newspaper reported that the kits were being produced by underpaid and overworked staff at sweatshops in Indonesia, the PR team at Adidas were forced to make the case for their defence more seriously.

Such are the perils of over-exposure and 24hr news. When everything is being produced in such a high-profile environment, when everything is being over-marketed and over-sold, resulting in a greater level of expectation and scrutiny, it’s a price the likes of Adidas will probably expect to pay.

2. Cathy Freeman’s space-age bodysuit

Usain Bolt used to be the most likeable athlete at the Olympics, but then he did those Virgin broadband adverts. Marion Jones, once the Golden Girl, found herself in jail for injecting herself with all sort of horrible things, and then lying about it.

Which leaves us with Cathy Freeman.

With the hopes of a nation upon her, in front of a packed 110,000-seater stadium, Freeman won Gold in the 400m at Sydney 2000 wearing the now iconic piece of sports clothing that is the futuristic Nike Swift bodysuit.

Inspired by speed-skating and designed to minimise drag, Freeman looked like something out of a Marvel comic; a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger in Running Man and a member of the Blue Man group, except in green. Not that she deserves ridicule. She looked great. That night in Sydney, Freeman was as close to super-human as anyone will realistically ever come.

Yet her story represents much more than just a great sporting achievement. This was a night heaped in history and political relevance, as Freeman became the first Aboriginal Australian to ever win an Olympic Gold medal. Freeman’s grandmother was part of the so-called ‘Stolen Generation’, where Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their natural parents and placed within white families. For an Olympics hosted at the turn of the millennium, by a country whose Aboriginal roots represent something of a tragic history, Freeman was the perfect face for a vision of the future: a nod to the past but a symbol of equality for times ahead.

“She has come to symbolise the painless reconciliation between black and white”, said David Rowe, professor of media and cultural studies at Australia’s University of Newcastle, at the time. “She stands for the Sydney Olympics.”

3. Iranian soccer players banned from playing in hijabs

Trust football to cause a stir at the Olympics. If ever there was a sport that doesn’t really sum up the Olympic spirit, and that doesn’t really deserve to be there, it is football. With its millions and billions, and it’s already clogged up tournament schedule, football is like the attention-seeking bastard brother of the Olympics that gate-crashes the party and causes a ruckus.

Last year, the Iranian women’s soccer team were prevented from playing their 2012 Olympic second round qualifying match against Jordan because they refused to remove their hijabs before kick-off.

Football’s world Governing body, FIFA, had originally banned the hijab in 2007, citing a combination of safety and political reasons as the main sticking point. Their mandate on the issue instructed that: “The team of a player whose basic compulsory equipment has political, religious or personal slogans or statements will be sanctioned by the competition organiser or by FIFA.”

The devil is in the detail, with the main debate concerning whether or not the headscarf counts as a religious or a cultural symbol, the degree to which the headscarves cover the body, and whether or not a headscarf qualifies within the guidelines of safety at the same time as honouring the dress-code enforced by the state of Islam.

Developments were made in 2012, when FIFA adjusted their rules to allow a cap that covers the players’ heads to the headline, but did not extend below the ears to cover the neck.

However, last month, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) – which ultimately approves rule changes in the sport on behalf of FIFA – allowed women players to wear the hijab, after FIFA executive committee member Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan proposed allowing players to use a Dutch-designed Velcro hijab, which comes apart if pulled.

The matter has still not been absolutely resolved, and a final decision surrounding the issue will be made in July, just weeks before the Olympics is set to take place. Watch this space.

4. Women no longer having to wear bikinis for beach volleyball

There are two things that come to mind when you think of beach volleyball: Top Gun and male-ogling. Little wonder, then, that it has never really been taken seriously as a sport.

But those days might now be on their way out after the FIVB – the International Volleyball Federation – passed a new rule to allow women the option of wearing long-sleeved tops and shorts instead of bikinis at the London Olympics.

The new rule permits shorts of a maximum length of 1.18 inches above the knee, and sleeved or sleeveless tops. The idea is to increase the choice amongst female athletes, and to provide flexibility for religious and cultural differences.

However, the changes are unlikely to catch on anytime soon, as many of the athletes have declared themselves happy with the current outfit. Female competitors had already been given the option of wearing full bodysuits on the world tour, many of whom did so at an event in The Hague last year.

5. Beijing 2008 and the LZR Racer suit

(image: Michael Phelps for Speedo LZR)

There’s only one thing more embarrassing than losing, and that is winning. Every. Single. Time. When Speedo launched the “world’s fastest swimsuit” – the LZR Racer – for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the unprecedented success that followed changed the face of swimming forever.

Within a week of its launch, three world records were broken by swimmers wearing the suit. “When I hit the water (in the LZR swimsuit), I feel like a rocket”, said American Michael Phelps, fulfilling his duty as the superstar front-man. Marketing-speak, it may have been. But a few weeks and eight Gold medals later, it’s safe to assume he meant every word.

The success of the suit at the Beijing Olympics was staggering: 94% of all races were won by athletes wearing the suit; and 98% of all medals overall. Every winner, in every men’s event in the Beijing Olympics won wearing the LZR Racer.

The situation frankly became embarrassing. Japan’s coach even suggested that: “If swimmers don’t wear the LZR Racer, they won’t be able to compete in Beijing”, despite the fact that many of the Japanese Olympic swimmers already had exclusive contracts with swimsuit makers other than Speedo.

After 17 more world records fell at the European Short Course Championships in Croatia in December 2008, the time had come to modify the rules. The combined effects of the LZR compressing the body and trapping air for buoyancy led to many competitors wearing two or more suits at a time for increased effect. ‘Technological doping’, as some called it.

In 2010, the International Swimming Federation, FINA, eventually moved to ban the suits, with new rules stipulating that men’s swimsuits may “maximally cover the area from the waist to the knee”, and that the fabric used must be a “textile” or woven material.

6. The Black Power salute, Mexico ‘68

The Mexico Olympics of 1968 played host to arguably the most famous of political sporting gestures: The Black Power salute.

Having won Gold and Bronze respectively in the 200m, two black American athletes – Tommie Smith and John Carlos – took to the podium to stage a protest against racial discrimination. The pair wore black socks and no shoes; Smith wore a black scarf around his neck. Standing with their heads bowed and with one hand raised, fist-clenched and adorned with a black glove, the world watched on to the tune of the American National Anthem.

It was an iconic moment in sports history. Coming months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the salute was symbolic of a wider movement of the time, which ultimately paved the way for better human rights and racial equality.

Stylistically, the image is not dissimilar to that which was later carried forward by the likes of Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury. Whether or not that moment in Mexico played a part in this is arguable, to say the least, but it is nonetheless an interesting correlation.

Revered as they are today, the protest did not go down well at the time. Smith and Carlos were suspended by the US Olympic team and were eventually expelled from the Games. These days, the International Olympic Committee takes a very different stance, positively recognising the pair’s actions on its official website, stating that: “Over and above winning medals, the black American athletes made names for themselves by an act of racial protest”.

Words: Isidore Lewis

on Twitter @isidorelewis

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