By  on February 14, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Maybe it's all the security wands at checkpoints and the soldiers on the mountains that are making this Olympic crowd so ready for more freedom and personal style.

A bashful teenage girl steals the gold with some in-your-face snowboarding, a somewhat quiet Canadian company makes shoppers clamor for American merchandise, Olympic fans are patted down so they can cheer in peace for their favorite athletes, helicopters buzz above ski resorts and stone-faced policemen in yellow Marker ski jackets wave on the underwhelming crowds.

Welcome to the Winter Games, Salt Lake City style.

But in the end, the experience is all about performance, whether it be for an athlete, a product, a brand or even a security team. Even Donna de Varona, a seasoned Olympic commentator and on-site consultant for U.S. Olympic Committee president Sandy Baldwin, said, "This is the Olympics -- it used to be this without the fences. You stand in these security lines and think, 'I'll never do this again,' and then you see a tremendous performance by an athlete and it all makes sense."

Not everything adds up, though. Consider some of the taped greetings airing at various venues. While Claudia Schiffer's suggestion to downhill skiing spectators to try to stay warm melted some men in the crowd, others fell flat. Alex Tribec and Sylvester Stallone just don't signal winter sports.

Others took their presence more seriously. Olympic gymnast Bart Conner was candid about his and his wife Nadia Comaneci's motive for being here for the duration: "Corporate schmoozing."

Willy Bogner was among the execs hanging out at the Games who said the Olympics provide a testing ground for performance pieces, a checkup on current trends, glimpses of product innovation and a chance to see how people enjoy themselves.

Descente, a $600 million Japanese performance label outfitting a handful of skiing, speedskating and ski-jumping teams with their revolutionary styles, set up a gallery in Park City to let visitors test drive their Olympic goods.

"For us, it is an image exhibit, designed to show the public what the future of sport will look like and what it will do," said Kathryn Johnston, manager of international.A case in point: the iridescent, floor-length coat worn by the Swiss delegation on opening night. Called the Morphotex, the jacket is supposed to be reminiscent of Africa's morpheus butterfly, which has transparent wings that refract light so they appear to be a brilliant blue. Descente also unveiled its cocoon coat with a lightbulb-shaped hood that allows athletes to tune out or in with an MP3 player pocket, along with lining designed to release negative ions.

After wearing one for a few hours during Monday's delay for the women's downhill, Canadian skier Anne-Marie Lefrancois, someone who races faster than most people drive, said it kept her "really warm" on top of the mountain.

"I feel like an astronaut," she said.

But Descente's concept is well grounded. The brand tapped a graphic designer-turned-costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who thinks "thoughtfully conceived design can provide psychological support to the athlete facing tough competition."

That's why athletic companies go after the Games, according to Salomon president Jean Luc Diard, who said: "It's extremely tough what we do from a product standpoint, but it's extremely gratifying to see something you make helps an athlete to perform better. If you don't create, you don't contribute to sport and to the dreams of people. We have to do this, even though 90 percent of the time it will be worn by everyday consumers."

Like many other brands and international teams, Salomon leased a space, in their case Miner's Hospital, a historic office building that once housed ailing miners at the turn of the 20th century. Club France, a hangout for French athletes on the edge of Temple Square, was Carole Montillet's celebration stop right after picking up her gold medal for women's downhill Tuesday night.

A CNN crew waited two hours Tuesday night to speak with Montillet, who turned up in her Adidas warmup, a look well represented among Salt Lake's casual crowd.

With temperatures dropping into the teens this week, many fans abandoned fashion for the sake of warmth. Hats, especially patriotic styles like the Roots Olympic beret, topped the list, with ski jackets and snowboard pants with stealth features running a close second. As Bogner, a two-time Olympian and founder of the namesake firm, said: "These clothes don't necessarily make people look good. It's protective gear that most people want for practical purposes."That would go for Nobel Peace prize winner Lech Walesa, who turned out for men's ski jumping in Park City wearing a fur cossack hat. The Russian team also broke away from the pack in the opening ceremonies with their long sable-trimmed coats with coordinating hats and muffs. More formal than most, the look earned points from Bogner, whose own company worked some fur trim into the German team's opening night outfits. He was less complimentary of Roots' navy designs for the American team.

That was evidently a minority opinion, based on the crowds that stood 200 people deep at times this week outside the company's three area stores. A few eager shoppers greased the palm of one salesman standing guard at the Park City store with the hopes of jumping the line. Many "just had to get some for their children," and Roots ramped up its factory to double shifts, with the hopes of looking after those children. The store was so packed Tuesday afternoon that Nagano's gold medal snowboarder Ross Rebagliati stood unnoticed near a cash register.

Roots co-founder Don Green, standing outside the store on Main Street, said, "To outfit the American team is huge. But doing it during this interesting point in history is putting it over-the-top."

That kind of branding is unmatched in recent Winter Games, where many athletes tend to be as unrecognizable as their brands. Fairy tales like Tara Lipinski's win are well recorded, but wins in less-popular sports are often fleeting, such as the women's hockey team, which is shooting for a repeat gold-medal performance. But 18-year-old snowboarder Kelly Clark's halfpipe victory stands to turn that phenomenon on its head.

Aside from possibly landing a seven-digit salary in endorsements this year, Clark offered "an absolute bar-raising performance," said Rebagliati, which will inevitably push other riders to match her style and attract more girls to the sport.

Her win and the American's gold-medal sweep of snowboarding revealed a new level of riding and hearty crowd reaction, said Jake Burton, the unofficial father of snowboarding and Clark's sponsor. Dismissing the suggestion that her new-found publicity should help give Burton sales a jolt, he said the continued momentum behind the sport gives him the greatest charge."That's what we're all about -- the roots of the sport," he said.

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