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An understatement that is not. When Nastia watched the 1996 U.S. Olympic team take the stage in Atlanta as a child, their uniforms looked absolutely nothing like the ones she’d wear more than a decade later in Beijing, despite the fact that for a long time, outfitting gymnasts was a relatively simple task. But thanks to both advancements in fabric technology and cultural shifts surrounding gymnastics, leotards worn by elite gymnasts have never been a more important aspect of the sport.
"It’s very funny to see it all transpire into what it is today, which is very blingy and showy," remarks Lauren Hopkins, the founder of the gymnastics news blog The Gymternet. This summer, she’s been working as a researcher for NBC’s Olympic coverage. "It used to be very basic, like, ‘Here’s a plain leotard with some stripes.’"
Martha Karolyi, the coordinator of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, even calls them "prom dresses," thanks to the fact that for most of them, the biggest stage in the sport is as close to a prom as they’re going to get.
This shift occurred around the millennium, when gymnastics leotards began to feature a sprinkle of crystals here and there, accenting a neckline or a sleeve. It’s a phenomenon that Kelly McKeown, the executive vice president of design and corporate relations at GK Elite, the official manufacturer of Team USA’s Olympic leotards, has spent her whole career defining.
What started with plain white leotards accented with simple patriotic motifs began to give way to newer technology that allowed Swarovski crystals to be applied by machine, not by hand — "We only use Swarovski because it’s the top quality in the entire world," she explains — therefore making way for more of them. "It blew up from there," says McKeown. "I would say the 2012 Olympics was the beginning of the intense, opulent designs, and we’ve taken it to a whole new level now."
The evolution isn’t limited to crystals, either. "A big leotard trend right now is ombré," says Hopkins, but what she’s actually referring to is a process called sublimation. This involves a design that's physically printed onto an existing fabric, creating colors that artfully bleed into one another and cannot be replicated in any other way.
These changes reflect the increasing diversity of Olympic gymnasts, not only in age and ethnicity, but in body type and skill set. "With the [old] scoring system and how points were put together, there was a certain body type that was more typical, and now they’re such varied body types," explains McKeown, referring to the 2006 overhaul of gymnastics’ Code of Points, which marked the end of the 10-point system and replaced it with a scoring system that is infinite.
"[Martha] tries the leotards on multiple athletes to see the extreme of Simone [Biles]’s body, who is very muscular and strong, and then trying it on another body, like Madison Kocian, who has a smaller frame," she says. "It’s so smart of Martha how she approaches it — wanting all the girls to look beautiful, and not just focusing in on one star. It’s about the team and making sure that the variety is there for all the skin tones and body types."
It’s startlingly easy to see that evolution play out in photos. Below, a timeline of notable Team USA Olympic leotards from 1996 through 2016.
Though the Olympic Games officially kick off today, there’s a reason that as of yet, the public has only seen just one of the eight competition leotards from the 2016 kit, one that may not even be worn by any of the girls. "They definitely don’t like to let the cat out of the bag — it’s part of the ethos of the team, and Martha, and of the USA," explains McKeown.
But there are a few things we can deduce. For the first time in eight years, there will likely be none of the bubblegum pink that drew so much attention to the U.S. team in the 2008 and 2012 Games. "Things are going to be very much more patriotic," she says. GK Elite has also used the sublimation technique, so that the colors of the flag will bleed into one other in fabrics like shiny Mystique and mesh.
And, of course, the crystals. "Some of the leos also have about 5,000 of them, which is more than even in London," she says. (Total cost? $1,200 per leotard, plus the price of custom fittings all over the world.)
An interesting caveat to the sparklification of gymnastics leotards is that unlike in other sports where bedazzled uniforms are standard, like figure skating, the trend does not apply to men. Because men and women gymnasts train separately from each other, there isn’t much influence between the two groups. "The guys are very, very masculine," says McKeown. "They love anything cool and hip and edgy." This year’s U.S. men’s Olympic uniforms will, however, use the sublimation process. "They feel like they’re wearing cool art. And they are!"
While the disco ball-ification of gymnastics (women’s gymnastics, anyway) doesn’t seem to be dying down, it’s hard not to wonder where leotards could possibly go from here. "We were joking about that at the ranch," she says, referring to the storied Karolyi Ranch training center. "Aly [Raisman] was like, ‘Can you imagine what they’re going to look like at the next Olympics?!’ I could speculate, because there’s definitely still new technology that isn’t out in the marketplace. Some of it is visual, and some is just from the construction standpoint. In two years when we start talking about the next Olympics, we’ll be able to incorporate some of those items."
But with all the changes to gymnastics uniforms, traditionalists can at least find one aspect of the sport’s style to hang onto. Though the popularity of the scrunchie has waned since its heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s, every GK Elite leotard still always comes with a matching one.
And even though many gymnasts reflexively toss them out, according to Hopkins, McKeown says that when GK Elite stopped including them a few years ago, they received so many complaints that they ended up reversing the policy.
"I asked the girls at the ranch, ‘Do you even use these scrunchies?’ and I thought they’d be like, ‘Nah, we’re not really into it anymore’ but a bunch of them said, ‘Oh my gosh, no! Don’t stop sending them to us because we want to wear them!’" Though you likely won't see Team USA wearing scrunchies in competition, it's nice to know that after 20 years of transitions, some things haven't changed at all.