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How clothes came to make the Games

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Once upon a time, athletes made headlines, uniforms did not. Our Olympians wore jeans by Levi Strauss. We fixated on the gold around their necks, not the labels on their backs.

In 1948, the second time London hosted the Olympics, many American athletes bought their own ceremonial and competition uniforms. Known as the “Austerity Games” (a British buzzword once again), the ’48 Games found some athletes staying in private homes and paying for their own necessities. Times were tough and organizers were stingy. Can you blame folks for ignoring the clothes?

But over time, athletic wear has become a multibillion-dollar industry, with sponsorship deals and melon-size monograms. And on a world stage, highly visible branding campaigns can lead to astronomical sales . . . or congressional outrage.

From Spalding shortie-shorts to Team Polo, here’s a look at some less-controversial American uniforms.

1936: A.G. Spalding & Co. became the first official outfitter of the U.S. Olympic team, designing the uniforms for the Summer Olympics in Berlin. Each female athlete was given a “U.S.A.” sweater, white shorts, sweatsuit and tracksuit. And the men wore shorts that were as itty-bitty as the women’s.

1984: Back when most Levi’s were still made in the United States, Levi Strauss outfitted Team USA in boot-cut denim jeans (with a cuff!) and cowboy hats for the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo. The uniform looked remarkably similar to the one Levi’s had designed for the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.

1992: J.C. Penney was the official outfitter of the 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona. It tapped menswear designer Henry Grethel to make blue blazers, stars-and-stripes ties and white floppy Panama hats for the 1,500 athletes and coaches. “The U.S. Olympic team is a great source of national pride,” he told the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch in 1992.

2002: When Mitt Romney, now the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, was at the helm of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Roots made a popular fleece beret in red, white and blue. The Canadian company’s sales soared, but a minor outcry ensued when reports surfaced that the Roots uniforms were manufactured in Burma. That year, though, critics were more concerned with sweatshop labor practices than lost American jobs.

2004: Roots also designed the U.S. Olympic uniforms for the Summer Olympics in Athens. Hats were once again called into question when the athletes showed up in golf caps that evoked the Roaring Twenties. Because the Games were held during the infancy of the Iraq war, some critics claimed the hats were chosen to avoid any “gunslinging” imagery that evoked the American cowboy. “There was no discussion of making the athletes less conspicuous as Americans,’’ Michael Budman, a co-founder of Roots, told the New York Times in 2004.

2008: When the Olympic Committee needed a sponsor to make the ceremonial uniforms for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Ralph Lauren stepped in and provided some preppie sweater vests and ribbon belts. Those uniforms, too, were manufactured in China. But perhaps it was a nod to the host country?

2012: This year, Ralph Lauren designed the uniforms again, but debate erupted after ABC World News reported that the double-breasted blazers and berets were manufactured in China. For the 2014 Winter Olympics, Lauren has to vowed to manufacture the uniforms in the United States.

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