When Carl Lewis looked at the sleek track and field uniforms Nike designed for U.S. athletes at the London 2012 Olympic Games, he got a bit wistful.
“I remember those days of heavy shorts and heavy singlets, and the evolution to a bodysuit,” the ten-time Olympic medalist said. “This is a huge difference and must feel so much better when you run.”
The bright red speed suits not only feel better, they could help lift Lewis’ successors to the podium: Nike says its design, including aerodynamic “dimples” that mimic a golf ball, may shave up to 0.023 second off 100-meter sprint times. That’s a difference that could have elevated U.S. sprinter Walter Dix from a bronze to a silver medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
But high performance wasn’t the only thing on Lewis’ mind when the outfits were unveiled Thursday evening in New York. He and two other track and field legends, Michael Johnson and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, were taken with how confident athletes would feel in the eye-catching red uniforms.
“When you look good, you feel good,” said Johnson, the only man ever to win both the 200 meter and 400 meter sprints, a feat he accomplished at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. “I was fortunate to work with Nike on my gold shoes, made specifically for me for the 1996 Games. Going into those Games I absolutely felt confident.”
For Joyner-Kersee, a six-time Olympic medalist, anything that takes away from an athlete’s worries is worth its weight in gold.
“The less fabric the better, as long as it’s rippling in the right places,” she said. “As an athlete it makes a big difference. You’re trying to explode out of the box and you don’t want your uniform creeping up, especially if you’re a woman. Nike has done a great job.”
Lewis, Johnson and Joyner-Kersee – winners of a combined 20 Olympic medals – were introduced by Jon Drummond, the winner of gold medal in 4x100 meter relay at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and current Team USA relay coach, at an event to introduce the track and field uniforms, as well as off-track apparel that U.S. athletes would sport in London.
For Johnson, getting his first Team USA uniform was one of the signal events of his career.
“I remember the unitard, and jumping up and down on the bed screaming and hollering,” he said. “It was just an incredible joyous moment. Once you get that uniform with USA on the front, it really signifies, ‘I am part of an exclusive club, I am an Olympian.’”
Lewis and Kersee loved the color.
“You can see the dimples on it; it’s very aerodynamic,” Lewis said. “And I think the red color really pops out on television and people will be able to see, that’s an American. I like the brighter, stronger color.”
“Red is power, and we have a powerful team that’s going to represent us,” Joyner, whose husband, Bobby, is coach of many Olympic hopefuls, said. “And when we’re lining up in lane two or three or whatever lane we are in, we’re going to pop, and we’re going to power up and here we come, USA.”
The uniforms – also including snappy red shorts and tank ensembles – are only part of Nike’s Olympic line. Three distinct medal-stand looks also were unveiled.
“This is the first time Nike has developed three different looks, all in keeping with the American tradition,” Peter Zeytoonjian, USOC Managing Director of Consumer Products and Licensing, said. “All of our athletes will receive a full complement of Nike apparel. They’ve already given their sizes, so when they check in to team processing, they get a full kit including village wear.”
The medal-stand outfits feature many uniquely American details, especially the jackets. Archers, boxers, wrestlers and others will sport the Nike Varsity Bomber Classic, designed as homage to the letterman jacket, with “the home of the brave” woven into the zipper fabric. Tennis players, triathletes and gymnasts are among those who will wear the Nike 21st C. Windrunner, a sleek silver jacket with several patriotic touches.
“The back of the [Windrunner] has a back ventilation system with 50 tiny holes, for the 50 states, and the Team USA mark is inside the jacket, over the heart,” Lisa Baird, USOC Chief Marketing Officer, said. “All the typefaces used [in all of the garments] are from U.S. currency. The clothing is full of these subtle cues.”
The third of the medal stand trio, the Nike N98 MK11 Jacket, is a classic black zip-up inspired by Nike’s first warm-up jackets created for the Brazil soccer team.
U.S. Olympians will receive the looks, plus additional casual wear including T-shirts, bandanas, and a flowing American flag silk scarf. Each kit includes a guide with suggestions of what to wear, when.
“The clothing is completely American, but avoid the cliché of red, white and blue,” Baird said. “So it all makes a really modern, but still authentic American, statement.”
After admiring the outfits, conversation with the track and field greats turned from apparel, to U.S. hopes in London.
“It’s really kind of touchy for me, with Bobby training a lot of our athletes and our Olympic trials two weeks away,” Joyner-Kersee said. “I’m hoping and praying to see them make the team first, and to see [sprinter] Allyson Felix win her first Olympic gold medal individually. And of course I would love to see us win gold in long jump, that’s my bread and butter.”
Lewis, a member of two gold medal-winning U.S. 4 X 100 meter relay teams, urged Drummond to avoid repeating the mistake that snuffed out U.S. relay chances in the first round of the 2008 Summer Games: “I know we’ll do great, but Jon, do me a favor -- make sure they don’t drop that stick again, because we can win relay.”
See more of Nike's Team USA apparel here.