So it begins: the flag-waving excitement, the teeth-grinding 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 sports pundits the best female gymnast ever, and whose performance in Rio de Janeiro 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 very 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.
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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 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.
The psychology of bling
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.
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.
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 other national teams have also begun to bedazzle, none has reached the extent of the Americans, who have made it their signature.
‘We all love fashion’
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,” Liukin said.
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.
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 ballgown,” Liukin said.
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.”
Meanwhile, Swarovski has been working to change the makeup and cut of its crystals so that they will be ever lighter to accommodate demand. This autumn, it 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,” said Alexander Wellhoefer, senior vice president for North America of Swarovski Professional.
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,” 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?’ ”