Even if Simone Biles makes off with multiple gold medals in this Olympics (at this point, she’s scheduled to be in competition through Aug. 15), it is very likely that in her multi-medal post-Games photos, 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.
We may have hit peak crystal.
Kelly McKeown of GK Elite, official outfitter of the U.S. gymnastics team
“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 U.S. national gymnastics 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 U.S. women’s team since 2001, who, along with her husband, Bela, has been a formative influence on U.S. 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 Olympics.) It is also one of the most commercially influential.
How did we get here?
IN THE BEGINNING
Once upon a time, leotards were simple. Originally called maillots and popularized by 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, Pennsylvannia, 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.
(Sparkles are) 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.
Samantha Peszek, 2008 Olympic gymnast now working for NBC
“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 U.S. 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, Farrell said: “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 McKeown of GK Elite.
“In the early 1990s, the U.S. team always wore white because Martha wanted to show off their six-packs,” McKeown said. 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 leotards 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,” McKeown said. “Martha always wants ‘more sparkle, more sparkle.’ ”
Though television brings all the athletes up close, they can get lost amid the actual competition on the floor. Shine helps highlight and distinguish each one.
“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 ever more focused on athleticism and tricks – to its detriment, some argue. In a way, the fanciness and drama of the leotards can be seen as an attempt to correct a perceived imbalance between artistic power and physical power: telegraphing the idea that while “our skill level says one thing, our dress style says another.”
The Olympic stadium “is the biggest stage of our lives,” 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 an element in the scoring,” Peszek said. “But it’s part of the ‘look good, feel good, do good’ aspect. 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 leotard as the gymnast’s “prom dress.”
Aly Raisman, the captain of the U.S. team in Rio and London, is famous among her peers for her interest in style, especially eveningwear.
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 leotards would cost an average of $1,200.
Though 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.
Though it may seem as if so many stones could inhibit performance, 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 its 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 ever more complex and precise patterns.
This autumn, 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.”