Ralph Lauren Olympic uniforms prompt election-year outrage from Congress

July 13, 2012

Several lawmakers, mostly Democrats, unloaded this week on the U.S. Olympic Committee after news reports that U.S. athletes in this year’s London Games will wear outfits designed by American Ralph Lauren but manufactured mostly in China.

And who could blame them? Their response is what is to be expected when you combine election-year politics with a sluggish economy and the souring national mood toward China.

“The pride of our Olympic athletics goes hand in hand with the pride of American innovation and manufacturing,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) wrote in a letter to U.S. Olympic Committee officials. “We shouldn’t be going to the world stage with anything less. From head to toe, Team U.S.A. must be made in America.”

Late Friday, Gillibrand and her Democratic Senate colleagues from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio introduced a bill that requires the USOC to outfit Olympic athletes in ceremonial uniforms “sewn or assembled in the United States.” The bill makes no mention of what to do with the actual athletic uniforms worn during competitions. An announcement about the bill notes that the USOC is a “federally chartered non-profit entity” and that failure to comply with the law would require USOC to provide “a detailed justification” for why it chose to purchase clothing made overseas.

The flurry of letters, speeches and sound bites came in response to a report aired Wednesday night by “ABC News World News” as part of a recurring series about the U.S. manufacturing sector called “Made in America.” The report noted that the U.S. Olympic Committee “would keep $1 billion from heading overseas” if it selected American firms to make the clothing.

The committee — the only among its international counterparts that doesn’t receive taxpayer money — expressed pride this week in its partnership with the world-renowned Ralph Lauren brand but declined to address the controversy over the uniforms.

On Thursday, an ABC producer asked House and Senate leaders for reaction to the report. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) expressed pride for the nation’s Olympians but added that “they should be wearing uniforms that are made in America.” Minutes later, at the same lectern, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said, “You’d think they’d know better.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) struck back hardest.

“I am so upset. I think the Olympic committee should be ashamed of themselves. I think they should be embarrassed,” he said. “I think they should take all the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them and start all over again.

“If they have to wear nothing but a singlet that says U.S.A. on it painted by hand, that’s what they should wear. We have people in America, in the textile industry — we have people in the textile industry who are desperate for jobs.”

Within minutes, Republicans used Twitter to ask Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson whether the senator planned to burn any of his foreign-made clothing. (They also asked whether Democrats planned to return thousands of dollars in political donations from Lauren.)

In response, Jentleson posted a photograph of the label on the Reid’s suit coat: “Made in the U.S.A.” For emphasis, Jentleson carried Reid’s suit coat through the halls of the Capitol to show reporters.

(The White House dodged questions Friday about the uniform controversy, calling it “not a government matter,” and a spokesman said he hadn’t checked labels on President Obama’s clothing. Spokespeople for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney did not immediately return requests for comment.)

ABC News’s “Made in America” series has attracted attention from lawmakers in the past. Last year, Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) summoned the head of the Smithsonian Institution to his offices to explain why gift shops at the National Museum of American History didn’t stock shelves with American-made goods. Weeks later — with ABC News cameras rolling — Smithsonian officials returned to Sanders’s office and announced plans to open a tiny gift shop selling only American-made wares. Separately, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) spent this week touting his “Make it in America” job-creation proposal — a plan that is unlikely to advance in the Republican-led House but carries a catchy name.

As Congress complained, some athletes also took note. Track-and-field star Nick Symmonds wrote: “Our Ralph Lauren outfits for the Olympic opening ceremonies were made in China. So, um, thanks China.” In a separate message to ABC News, he said the outsourcing decision “seems wrong.”

All of the congressional outrage earned headlines across the country and prompted ABC News to produce a follow-up report for its Thursday broadcast. It was the lead story.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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