So it begins: the flag-waving excitement, the thumb-chewing anticipation, the blinding sparkle. The Olympics.
Wait … hang on. The sparkle?
Indeed. Because if Simone Biles — the 19-year-old American who is often called by sport pundits the best female gymnast ever, and whose performance in Rio will be among the most-watched of these Olympics — does what most everyone seems to expect and makes off with multiple gold medals, it is likely that when she climbs the podium, the shininess of the discs around her neck will pale in comparison to the shininess of something else.
In 2008, when Nastia Liukin won the gold medal in the individual all-around competition at the Olympics in Beijing, her leotard had 184 crystals on it.
In 2012, when Gabby Douglas won the same event in London, her leotard had 1,188.
This year, many of the Team USA leotards will have close to 5,000 Swarovski crystals each.
“It’s difficult for me to imagine how we could get more crystals on,” said Kelly McKeown, executive vice president for design and corporate relations at GK Elite, the official outfitter of the American national gymnastic team. This Olympics, “we may have hit peak crystal.”
Along with the difficulty of each routine, which caused the international gymnastics federation to change the assessment system in 2006 from one based on a scale of 1 to 10 to one with no ceiling, the amount of crystals on the American leotards has also been growing exponentially. This is not a coincidence.
It has to do partly with one woman: Martha Karolyi, coordinator for the United States women’s team since 2001, who, along with her husband, Bela, has been a formative influence on American gymnastics.
But as with any grueling athletic contest that involves seemingly unimaginable physical feats accomplished by barely grown teenagers, it also has to do with competitive psychology, adolescent aesthetics, sacrifices made by elite athletes and technology.
And it matters because women’s gymnastics is one of the most widely viewed Olympic sports (when the women’s team won gold in London, the broadcast was the most-watched of any Tuesday night network broadcast since 2002, which, not incidentally, was of the Salt Lake City Olympics). It is also one of the most commercially influential.
There may not be a lot of young javelin throwers on neighborhood fields whispering about their favorite Olympians. But in local gyms all over the country and the world, girls who may never come anywhere close to an Olympic stadium can nevertheless dress like their bedazzled heroes. And they want to.
Which is to say: in sparkles. More sparkles than Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
How did we get here?
In the beginning
Once upon a time, leotards were simple. Originally called maillots and popularized by the acrobat Jules Léotard (a pioneer of the flying trapeze) in the late 1800s, leotards as we know them literally took shape in the mid-20th century, albeit in a much baggier, utilitarian kind of way.
Donna Strauss, a coach at Parkettes in Allentown, Pa., who has been working with national gymnasts since 1968, remembers early leotards as simply black short-sleeved one-pieces. In 1976, when Nadia Comaneci won a gold medal on the uneven bars with a perfect 10, she did so in a plain white leotard with three stripes down the side.
“When I started in the 1970s, my leo was polyester with a zipper down the front,” said Michelle Dusserre Farrell, who at 15 became the youngest member of the 1984 United States gymnastics team. (Among gymnasts, leotards are generally “leos.” ) “It wasn’t until the early 1980s, when they were made with Lycra, that the leos finally stopped bagging.”
And it wasn’t until 1984 and the explosion of Mary Lou Retton, who won a gold in the individual all-around (as well as four more medals) in a “stars and stripes” leotard, that bold graphics became a thing. At the time, said Ms. Farrell, “It got pretty mixed reviews. It wasn’t subtle.”
When the Karolyis took over in 1988, things really began to change. “We went from being very patriotic to being much fancier,” said Ms. McKeown of GK Elite.
“In the early 1990s, the U.S. team always wore white, because Martha wanted to show off their six packs,” Ms. McKeown said (referring to abs, not beer). Not long after, the coach began to lean toward purple and pink and red. Then came the sparkles.
The bedazzling of the leotard began around the turn of the millennium, with a few crystals around the neckline or sprinkled over the garment. The crystals made the gymnast — a small girl in a giant arena — stand out in the field of play, highlighting her often astonishing movements.
Combined with a fabric called Mystique, which overlays foil and hologram atop the spandex to create even more shine, the leos gymnasts wore became ever glossier, especially as the crystals crept down the sleeves and over the body of the garment. “It’s always Swarovski: They have the most shine and sparkle,” Ms. McKeown said. “Martha always wants ‘more sparkle, more sparkle.’”
Though television brings all the athletes up close, amid the actual competition on the floor they can get lost, and shine helps highlight and distinguish each girl. “When the judges are there, every little thing counts,” said Samantha Peszek, a member of the 2008 Olympic team who is working for NBC’s digital and social content team for this summer’s games.
The crystals also serve to emphasize the aesthetic aspect of a sport that has become evermore focused on athleticism and tricks — to its detriment, some argue. In a way, the fanciness and drama of the leos can be seen as an attempt to correct a perceived imbalance between artistic power and physical power: telegraphing that idea that while “our skill level says one thing, our dress style says another.”
The Olympic stadium “is the biggest stage of our lives” Ms. Liukin, the 2008 Olympic gymnast and current NBC Olympic commentator, said. Note the emphasis on “stage.” It may seem reductive to compare Olympic gymnastics to, say, a Vegas arena, but the sartorial theory behind both is effectively the same: Use the bling to stand out.
Though other national teams have also begun to bedazzle, none have reached the extent of the Americans, who have made it their signature.
Sparkle, sparkle, sparkle
One of the odder things about interviewing an elite female gymnast is how quickly a conversation about the sacrifices and difficulties of her sport can suddenly become all about sparkle. It is a word that comes up again and again.
“Obviously, sparkles are not en element in the scoring. But it’s part of the ‘look good, feel good, do good aspect.’” Ms. Peszek said. “It’s a very important part of the sport. It may sound trivial, but what you wear really matters. For some girls, it’s why they got into the sport.”
As the athletes and their coaches point out, elite gymnasts who start training seriously at a very young age often don’t get to go to prom or other typical adolescent parties because they are always in the gym; it has become a cliché of the sport to refer to the Olympic competition leo as the gymnast’s “prom dress.”
Gymnasts cannot wear jewelry during competition save for a pair of stud earrings, so the crystals also act as a stand-in for other more traditional adornment. “We’re hard-core athletes, but we all love fashion, too,” said Ms. Liukin.
Aly Raisman, the captain of the United States team in Rio and London, is famous among her peers for her interest in style, especially evening wear.
Each Olympian now receives a package with eight competition leotards and 12 training leotards. Each is custom-fit to her body, and on the open retail market the heavily crystal-studded competition leos would cost an average of $1,200 (more than many prom dresses).
Though Ms. Karolyi has the final word on the team competition, the gymnasts have input and are free to choose their own leotard for the individual events.
During the 2012 London games, for example, the team voted together to wear the red Mystique style with a stylized crystal pattern across the body during the team competition. “It was like a ball gown,” Ms. Liukin said.
Though it may seem as if so many stones could inhibit performance, Ms. McKeown said that the additional weight is incidental. GK also makes “couture” leotards that have 15,000 crystals each, she said. “You wouldn’t compete in those.” The company has a fleet of state-of-the-art machines that cost over $50,000 each and use lasers and robotic technology to apply the stones to the fabric.
Meanwhile, Swarovski has been working to change the makeup and cut of their crystals so that they will be ever lighter to accommodate demand. According to Alexander Wellhoefer, senior vice president for North America of Swarovski Professional, they have adapted machinery from the computer chip industry to develop new techniques for stone application in evermore complex and precise patterns.
This autumn, Mr. Wellhoefer said, Swarovski will introduce a new crystal product, called a Concise Crystal, that is 50 percent lighter than previous stones, allowing for even more encrustation and refractory gleam.
“We’re in a crystal arms race,” Mr. Wellhoefer said.
The question now is whether we have reached the crystal saturation point when it comes to competition, or whether there is even further to go. “I ask myself that every tournament,” Ms. McKeown said. “We were doing a fitting with the girls the other day, and we all said, ‘Can you imagine what the leos are going to look like in four years if we keep going in this direction?’”
It may seem, given Ms. Karolyi’s upcoming retirement, that we are at a natural turning point in the sparkle saga. But if Ms. Biles and her teammates, all known crystalphiles, perform as expected while in full sparkle mode, chances are good that the millions of young fans who are watching will internalize the connection without ever entirely realizing why.
After all, when asked if there was ever a gymnast who tended, say, more to the minimalist Helmut Lang school of leotards than to the fairy princess Marchesa look, Jordyn Wieber, a member of the gold medal 2012 team who is now a student at U.C.L.A. and manager of the gymnastics team (which is known for the “creative backs” of their leotards), hemmed and hawed and thought for a while.
“Well, I guess some girls like more sparkle than others … ” she offered, her voice trailing off. But, she added more decisively, “I have never met a gymnast who doesn’t love rhinestones.”