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Last June in Esquire, the magazine I work for, we published an entirely subjective list of the most stylish sportsmen ever to grace pitch or court, field or circuit.
We were anticipating a pulsating summer of sport (but aren’t we always, darling?) and most of the icons were obvious. Sportsmen like Muhammad Ali, whose image is as potent and suggestive as those of Elvis and Sinatra, and who would still have been a knockout whatever he’d done, and whatever he’d worn to do it. We ran photographs of famous footballers, cyclists, cricketers, tennis players, boxers, golfers, racing drivers and more. Some of them were more dapper in their civvies (Imran Khan, Joe Namath), while others (Björn Borg, Johan Cruyff) looked best in their kit. Some, such as Pelé and Ali — whom we pictured shadowboxing in a polo shirt — looked good whatever the occasion. All were, or are, at least partly defined by their look, their style, their attitude, as much as their success. Even Lester Piggott.
Conspicuous by their absence, though, were any athletes from track and field, gymnastics, weightlifting and swimming: the core Olympic disciplines. These are the sports where winning Olympic gold is the summit of achievement rather than a mildly diverting sideshow, as it is for games that have their own more famous and lucrative tournaments, such as tennis, football, road cycling and now golf — and boxing, for that matter. (Ali was an Olympic champion, of course, as Cassius Clay in 1960, but that is as nothing, to fight fans, compared with being heavyweight champion of the world. Anyway, he famously threw his medal in the Ohio river.)
The Olympics, which explode into action on August 5 in Rio de Janeiro, might well be the greatest sporting show on earth — but they are hardly a costumier’s idea of a good time. Their style icons would barely fill a winners’ podium. Which is by no means to say that the Olympics have not produced great sportsmen and women, just that I don’t think you could claim many as fashion plates. Think, for a moment, only of British heroes, the stars of Team GB: Sebastian Coe, Steve Redgrave, Mo Farah, Chris Hoy — superb, world-beating athletes all, but few are remembered for more than their sporting feats, still less for their sartorial choices. (Daley Thompson and Jessica Ennis-Hill might be said to be the exceptions that prove the rule, but only if you do your all clothes shopping at Sports Direct.)
The Olympians, male and female, we remember best, and can most easily conjure in our mind’s eyes, have often had to overcome, outrun, subdue or somehow subvert their uniforms to breast the tape of fashion credibility. In other words, they have had to be memorable in ways other than simply looking stylish. In a sea of conformist tracksuits and singlets with numbers pinned to them, it has been necessary to be outrageous to stand out. Perhaps more than in any other sporting competition, then, Olympic style icons are distinguished more by their quirks than their cool.
The late Florence Griffith Joyner — Flo Jo — who dominated the track at Seoul in 1988, and is still the world record-holder at 100m and 200m, was as famous for her elaborate painted nails and her postbox-red lipstick as her feats in the stadium. The crossover success of the Barcelona games in 1992 was Britain’s Linford Christie, who won gold in the 100m but was more famous, much to his disgust, for his extraordinary physique, most specifically his “lunchbox”.
In 1976, in Montreal, all-American poster boy Bruce Jenner won the decathlon. An extravagantly muscled hunk in a red singlet, with a flowing mane of chestnut hair, Jenner was never heard from again. Just kidding: he went on to become a Playgirl cover star, a reality television personality and, as Caitlyn Jenner, the world’s most famous transgender woman, not to mention Kanye West’s stepfather-in-law. Beat that, Usain Bolt.
At the Munich games in 1972, the swimmer Mark Spitz, the Michael Phelps of his day, won seven gold medals for Team USA wearing nothing more than a tiny pair of stars-and-stripes trunks, a porn-star moustache and a smile. Phelps, his even toothier successor, may have won more medals at a single games (eight in Beijing in 2008), but he could learn a thing or two from Spitz about smooth-chested swagger.
Controversially representing Great Britain at the Los Angeles games in 1984, the South Africa-born distance runner Zola Budd’s style statement was to compete without shoes, a decision she may have had cause to rue when she tangled with the golden girl of American athletics, Mary Decker, in the 3,000m. That year in the gym, another American sweetheart, Mary Lou Retton, took home five medals in a patriotic leotard that would only have needed a pair of leg warmers and a headband to win its wearer a starring role alongside the kids on Fame.
Conversely, Michael Johnson, the undisputed star of the track at the 1996 games in Atlanta, wore shiny gold spikes to match his medals, but for all his prowess failed, like those games in general, to fully imprint himself on the consciousness of the non-sporting public. Cathy Freeman, the 400m champion who almost ran away with the Sydney Olympics in 2000, wore a hooded bodysuit. Inexplicably, it failed to catch on — but most of us can still picture her crossing the line (in both senses of that phrase).
If it’s a political rather than a fashion statement that needs making, where better to do it than during a medal ceremony? At the Mexico Olympics in 1968, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads on the podium and each raised a single, gloved fist in a Black Power salute. An iconic moment, no doubt, and I defy you to tell me where each finished in the race, or indeed which race it was. (Answers: first and third, respectively, in the 200m.)
But these are just the summer Olympians. Who can forget the outfits of winter competitors such as the British figure skater Robin Cousins, a gold medallist in Lake Placid in 1980, with his flawless triple-jumps and his glam-rock flares? Or Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, romping home in Sarajevo in 1984 in what looked like Kate Bush’s cast-offs? Or the gormless ski-jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards, who came last, by some distance, at Calgary in 1988 and was, as a direct result, recently the subject of a movie starring Hugh Jackman — though not, sadly, as Eddie. In the Olympic arena, kitsch always outperforms chic on the medal table.
There is no telling yet who will be the breakout star of Rio 2016. Perhaps, like the Jamaican sprinter Bolt, who dominated the games in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, he or she will not need a quirky outfit or a signature look. There is a handsome decathlete, Ashton Eaton, on the cover of the new American Vogue in his Team USA Nike kit, but he requires the distracting presence of the spectacular model Gigi Hadid, wearing Versace and wielding a javelin, to make the cover sizzle. (I have gazed upon it a number of times now and still can’t begin to picture young Ashton when I look away, only Gigi and her spear.)
Still, if things go well for him in Rio, perhaps Ashton will discover the only Olympic style rule that really matters: there is no better statement than a chest decorated with a gold medal.
Alex Bilmes is editor in chief of Esquire
Photographs: Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images; Xposure Photos; Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Bob Thomas/Getty Images; Terry O’Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; ABC Photo Archives via Getty Images; Leo Mason/Corbis via Getty Images