Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — If there was an unofficial sport at the Sydney Summer Olympic Games, it was voguing.
Unafraid to show off their muscles, makeup and in some cases their navels, a legion of athletes including Marion Jones, Jenny Thompson and Cathy Freeman, was dressed to the nines for the 17 days in Sydney. Consider the hooded silver number Freeman wore to light the caldron in the opening ceremonies, or the formfitting bodysuits that Thompson and other swimmers wore as they shot through the pool.
These women weren’t shy about showing off their chiseled frames. Several warmed up for Sydney’s publicity storm by posing like models in nonathletic magazines. On the track, singlets were replaced with belly-baring tanks — a look that even gold medalist pole vaulter Stacy Dragila went with.
The event, after all, celebrated a century of women’s participation in the Olympics.
Having attended every Summer Games since 1960 except Moscow, Olympic gold medalist and sports commentator Donna de Varona said, “It’s a whole different day for sports. From beach volleyball to the swimming pool to the track, the athletes’ uniforms were not only more stylish — but they were also user-friendly. Big and boring is gone.”
The aerodynamic hooded outfit Freeman wore to win the 400 meters protected her from the wind and cool temperatures, keeping her muscles warm, de Varona noted.
Gordon Thompson, who spearheaded Nike’s design team for Olympic uniforms, said, “I don’t think the athletes have ever looked so good.” He has since moved on to become creative director at Cole-Haan.
Although the broadcasting time delay drove away some TV viewers, the jocks still played their prime-time exposure like Hollywood regulars. Case in point: all the glitter and eye shadow flashed by gymnasts.
While the glitz factor certainly wasn’t enough to silence the whispers of drug abuse, poor sportsmanship and some underperforming athletes, there was still plenty of talk about fabrics and uniforms — even among sportscasters.
“Sportscasters pointed out the technical fabrics,” said Thompson. “Innovation has become more understandable — it’s not the exception any more. There is more interest in performance aspects whether you are an Olympic runner or just dressing that way, you expect the fabric should be great.”
All in all, athletes weren’t afraid to show their true colors or to try on some new shades. For instance, the Japanese team marched into the opening ceremonies wearing a rainbow of ponchos. Benetton Group SpA, the outfitter of Italy’s Olympic team committee, took a subtler route, suiting them in a sophisticated slate blue instead of the flashier shades favored in years past. A Benetton spokesman said the company sold out of 1,200 units of its Olympic-inspired products at its Fifth Avenue flagship.
Part of the appeal of the Olympics among teenagers is the accessibility of the athletes and their style — something most consumers don’t see in pro athletes, according to Kevin Umeh, chief executive officer of Element, a youth-oriented market research and consulting firm.
He noted that interest in cutout styles, rhinestone uniforms and glittery hair shot up after the Olympic gymnastics aired. And gold and silver — the two favorite shades of the Games, as well as colors that have gained popularity among teenagers in recent months — are being worn by Generation Y in eye shadow or nail polish, he said.
The Games might not make everyone want to to run a race, but they might remind people they can, or they have in the past, and that makes them want to wear activewear or interpret a trend, Umeh observed, and noted that 82 percent of all activewear is worn for nonathletic purposes.
“What starts out as athletic inspiration winds up being a fashion statement,” he said.
Thompson said the Olympics help to start or solidify trends. for example, the prevalence of patterned and cutout designs at the Summer Games reflected current fashion trends.
“On the creator side, what the Olympics always do is to serve as great inspiration for innovation. No matter how you cut it — innovation always breaks through,” Thompson said. “I don’t care what fashion writers or retailers have to say — a top athlete critiquing you is tougher than anyone.
“We’re entering a more tailored style of dressing in fashion and the athletes were a little cleaner and more dressed up,” he added.
Major retailers like Lady Foot Locker and Gart haven’t flooded their stores with Olympic merchandise, since many Americans didn’t watch the Games in numbers that had been hoped for. Instead, retailers went with select offerings to minimize markdowns.
With the exception of “a pinch” of products and a few point-of-purchase signs featuring Olympians like Marion Jones, Gart Sport has stayed away from pitching the Games, a company spokeswoman said. Interestingly, the retailer has already introduced 2002 Olympic Winter Games product in about 20 of its stores.
“Those sales are OK,” the Gart spokeswoman said, “but considering the Games are nearly 500 days away, that’s pretty good.”