You never forget your first team uniform, however simple, however poor the fit, however ugly. It's the hard work and accomplishment attached to the uniform that's important; the appearance is secondary. That is, for the first uniform. Afterwards, sentiment fades and wearing one becomes more duty than honor. The reality of uniforms is that they're picked solely on what's available and affordable. And when your team is sponsored, you wear what's free.
Looking at old pictures, it is clear that skiers were the arbiters of style. Into the Sixties, the skier look was chic, with long lines and slimming fabrics. The only decorations were perhaps a pinstripe or a patch-just a suggestion of raciness. Everyone, it seemed-from ski instructor to racer to resort employee-could be seen leaning on their poles in Sun Valley, or posed on a glacier, sunglasses fixed on the horizon.
Ski racers, who are more accountable to the clock than the fashion police, were the first to lose the style ascetic. With the advent of the downhill suit-fitted for speed, not flattery-function quickly overtook fashion in race wear. As materials improved, the suits got tighter and brighter, while the outerwear-parkas and warmups-became heavily adorned with features of questionable purpose. With TV exposure increasing, clothing sponsors cared less about the details of what the teams were wearing and more about just being noticed-the flashier the better. The Seventies (unkind to any followers of fashion) were especially rough on skiers. Proof enough are the shots of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. Clad in red, white and blue striped nylon outfits, the assembled athletes looked more like clowns than movie stars.
Having seen that display as a junior racer, I was under no illusions that U.S. Ski Team uniforms would be pretty. Nonetheless, from my first encounter with the team in the early Eighties, the annual uniform unveiling was always a shock. And it was the same for every national team. The first race of the World Cup season carried a secondary theme: the unofficial ritual of checking out all the team uniforms, to see which were the ugliest, which were the least flattering, and which we could hope to trade for at the end of the season.
During that era, the Americans were largely spared from the widespread Day-Glo curse. Instead, the U.S. colors were loosely guided by the traditional red, white and blue theme. There were, however, exceptions, like the baby blue and maroon uniform that lasted one poma ride before resembling a used Handi-Wipe. And then there was the year of "HoJos," when our teal and orange outfits were so similar to those of the roadside fast food and hotel chain that we would have looked more natural serving fried clams than skiing a flush.
Throughout the years, U.S. Ski Team members have been made to look like cartoon characters, space men, barber poles, Hell's Angels and animals. And heck, we got off easy. Other national teams have suffered worse indignities in the name of fashion. The French "Bruise" suits, as the name indicates, made the wearers look more like survivors of war than competitors. The Russians finally scored a sponsor to provide a full line of race and training wear...all in hot pink. The Swedes once wore a banana-eating gorilla on their backs. And I don't suppose the German men were especially pleased to be sporting flowers on their downhill suits. Marc Girardelli, Luxembourg's one-man team, resembled a box of Marlboro cigarettes during the time he was sponsored by the tobacco company. And the Swiss, for years now, have been dressed to resemble a block of you-know-what cheese.
One matter of style is consistent for all teams. As amateur rules were relaxed, the number and size of the sponsors' logos increased. Uniforms became billboards, stiff and heavy with the biggest patches they could bear. And every photo op became a study in sponsor alignment. One of the strangest logo placements came during the 1991 season, when U.S. Skki Team speed suits featured sponsor Gore-Tex plastered over one knee. At the same time, team doctors were experimenting-unsuccessfully-with using Gore-Tex to repair the torn knee ligaments of injured U.S. skiers.
Style and taste weren't the only things to be compromised. Sometimes the latest, greatest clothing was also a prototype, still in the early R&D phases. We had, on occasion, rain suits that were sieves; Velcro that attached itself to any exposed clothing and hair; drawstrings that whipped your face raw in one high-speed run; zippers that exploded when brushed by a gate; outerwear made of a material guaranteed to be warm and dry but that allowed little movement; and all manner of features that weren't quite resolved.
Inevitably, team members become anesthetized to appearance and the uniform, however outrageous, soon feels normal. This is a natural brainwashing process when you are traveling with a group of people who are all wearing the same stuff. There really is safety in numbers, and I remember precisely when this maxim hit home. That particular season we had a leisure-wear sponsor who had provided us with two outfits-both very high quality, functional and comfortable. The only drawback was that one made us look like Harlem Globetrotters, and the other made us look like we'd been caught downstream of Three Mile Island. To make matters worse, we wore them mismatched because they fit better that way. The end result resembled an unfortunate Garanimals mutation.
I was at a training camp when I had some reason to go to Wal-Mart...alone. I went dressed in the Globetrotter top and the neon bottoms, a combination that was de rigeur back at our team hotel. Deep in the middle of the toothpaste aisle, the world seemed to stop as I realized that everyone was looking at me, no doubt wondering where, besides Wal-Mart, I shopped.
The same company responsible for the Wal-Mart moment didn't even sell clothes in this country. So when I went to an international ski apparel trade show, I naturally was curious to see its entire line, fully expecting more fashion infractions. Instead I found racks of classic ski clothing, in subtle colors, rich fabrics and simple, flattering cuts. The satin and neon were nowhere to be seen, except up on the wall behind the racks, where pictures of several sponsored national teams-ours included-screamed from above. It seems the teams were used merely as attention getters for brand recognition. In other words, our role was to be ugly.
World Cup skiers do have one outlet for originality, and that's headwear, ranging from home-knit headbands to "lucky" hats to nothing at all. And that is where I finally saw the sponsorship gamble work. Last fall, the U.S. Ski Team's leopard Bula hat was the laughingstock in SKI's offices. Fine for Halloween, but not much else, we thought.
That was until Jonny Moseley wore it through a 360-mute grab and on to a gold medal in Nagano. Sure enough, after Moseley sported his hat on Oprah, Letterman and every personal appearance in between, people couldn't buy the neon hat fast enough. Which only goes to show that the one thing that never goes out of style is winning.