Every four years, we look forward to enjoying watching the Summer Olympics, and the track and field events are some of our favorites. Running faster, jumping higher, and throwing farther than we mere mortals could possibly comprehend, these athletes stun us with what the human body can accomplish and endure. While what they’re wearing is probably the least interesting thing about their event, it is kind of cool to see how Olympics track and field uniforms have changed over the years. We’ve put together an interesting retrospective of how they’ve evolved over the years.
The Olympics date back thousands of year; there was a 1,500 year hiatus from 393 to 1896 (
#ThanksEmperorTheodosius for banning them). But, for our sartorial purposes, the early Games aren't really relevant anyway since the first Olympians competed in the nude; athletes wanted the gods (and their competition) to see their rippling muscles and rock-hard abs.
But when the Games were revived in the late 1800s, right around the time Europe and America began to understand
the benefits of exercise, clothing was required. The overall trend when it comes to track and field uniforms is this: slow change over time and, mostly, unchanged from day one with a few notable exceptions. There are also some trends that don't stick around (what the heck is a hood supposed to accomplish except make your head hot)? Overall, track and field favors a "no frills, no flair" approach to uniforms, which are minimally decorated and very simple. 1896 Getty Images/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
1896 saw the first Olympics in more than 1,500 years in Athens Greece (apparently
Emperor Theodosius found them too pagan... all that nudity probably didn’t help).
Many of the track and field events beloved of the Ancient Greeks made a comeback in the modern Olympiad and persist to this day: various foot races, long-jump, and discus throw, as seen here, to name a few.
Robert Garret of the USA won gold at the games wearing knee length shorts and a form-fitting, sleeveless shirt — not too far off from competitors today
1908 Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
As time wore on, baggier shorts began to come into vogue, as seen here in London on discus throw winners, Merritt H. Griffin (2nd), Marquis Horr (3rd) and Martin Sheridan of the U.S. (1st) can be seen. They are also sporting slightly more “modest” tee shirts (no sleeveless shirts for these distinguished gents), which is a look that went back and forth between 1896 to this point, with some athletes opting for sleeves and others not.
1912 Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
Jim Thorpe is a legend: a two-time Olympic medalist (decathlon and pentathlon), professional footballer, and professional baseball player who just kept winning in spite of anti-Indigenous racism hurled at him from competitors and, some say,
the International Olympic Committee itself.
Thorpe can be seen here wearing a slightly less baggy, more revealing uniform than we saw in the previous games, but is still basically in keeping with what spectators had come to expect from track and field athletes up until now.
1920 Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
The 1920s marks an era of ever rising hemlines and Olympic shorts were no exception. We also see them return to their original tightness in this period as well.
Hey, World War I was finally over, taking a generation of young men and the 1916 Games in its wake. Athletes like America’s Pat Ryan, seen here, were entitled to a bold no look, and nothing says “We’re back, baby!” quite like tight short-shorts!
1928 George Rinhart/Corbis Historical/Getty Images
You may have noticed that until now we’ve only shown you men’s uniforms. That’s because women did not compete in track and field events until 1928. (Boo!) It’s a somewhat pleasant surprise, however, to see that in this inaugural year, the women dressed fairly similarly to their male counterparts.
Note the slipper-sock looking shoes these women are wearing — they are similar in design to those worn by all track and field athletes since the beginning of the games.
1936 ullstein bild Dtl./ullstein bild/Getty Images
You’re probably familiar with what track uniforms looked like at the 1936 Olympics because of the inspiring victories of American Jesse Owens, a Black athlete who dominated the Games held in Nazi Germany.
His uniform, as well as those of his his female counterparts, are similar to some of the outfits we see today. A notable change in this era of competition is in his shoes, which were designed by
Adolf Dassler, founder of Adidas and (it must be said) a member of the Nazi party. Dassler convinced Owens to wear his design, custom made with extra long spikes, as a marketing ploy (other shoes were gifted to other athletes). It is considered among the first athletic endorsements in modern history. 1948
Due to World War II, the Olympics did not return until 1948. Uniforms remained pretty much the same, though the “sleeves/no sleeves” debate raged on (and by “raged” we meant “different people chose different things.”
Here we see French discus thrower Micheline Ostermeyer taking a bold, pro-sleeves stand as she wins the gold.
1956 Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
Again, nothing too revolutionary in 1956 from previous years (except that now, you may notice shoes that look more like a modern day running shoe than was saw before Jesse Owens), but just look how adorable these woman are! We want to be friends with them and also wear an adorable track uniform.
1968 Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
While track and field uniforms continued their typical look in 1968, it would be irresponsible not to discuss the sartorial choices made by runners
Tommie Smith and John Carlos to celebrate their identity as Black Americans and draw attention to anti-Black racism in America.
Both men wore a black glove each raised in a Black Power salute as the national anthem played. (Carlos had apparently left his gloves at the Olympic Village in Mexico City by mistake;
Peter Norman, the Australian who won silver and was sympathetic to their message, suggested the men split up one pair, hence Carlos is raising his left fist as opposed to his right.) Smith and Carlos received their medals shoeless in black socks to represent Black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent Black pride while Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with blue collar workers and a bead necklace to honor those Black folks who died by lynching, enslavement, and other racist atrocities.
All three men wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges and
all three were censured by the International Olympic Committee, but especially Carlos and Smith. The subject of Olympians making social or political commentary on the podium is a debate that rages even now. ( We see you, Ms. Raven!) 1976 picture alliance/picture alliance/Getty Images
It should be clear, at this point, there were no terribly dramatic shifts in track and field uniforms from the 1950s onward.
However, tall socks had a moment for some track and field competitors in 1976 and only 1976 — like American Dwight Stones, seen here — and, we must say, we’re kind of here for it.
We’re also seeing shorts in this period get noticeably shorter. Still
shorts but verging closer and closer to looking a bit like athletic underwear. 1984 David Madison/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
You’ve all been waiting for Florence Griffith Joyner’s appearance on this list. Noted for her flamboyant track outfits and long nails, she’s looking pretty conservative by her standards at the Los Angeles Games, but also she (and her fellow competitors) are in notably different uniforms, opting for a leotard rather than the standard short/shirt combo that had been popular since the beginning of the modern Olympics.
1988 David Madison/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
At the Seoul Games, Flo-Jo and a few other athletes (
including Roger Kingdom) debuted the hooded tracksuit. Why a hood? We don’t know if anyone really knows, but why not a hood, amiright? 1992 David Madison/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
1992 is the first year since the Ancient games that bellybuttons were seen at the Olympics (and the first time
female bellybuttons were seen... male navels have yet to make a reappearance). PattieSue Plumer of the United States is just one of the runners who bared her midriff in Barcelona. 2000 OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images
A few male track and field competitors began wearing unitard-esque track suits as early as 1988, but we began to see more of them at the Sydney Games. They are less revealing than those worn but their female counterparts, but just as form-fitting.
2008 Ian MacNicol/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
Yes, it seems that two-piece tracksuits among women and form-fitting tracksuits for all are here to stay for a while. Russia’s Elena Isinbaeva seems pretty happy about it.
2021 JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images
This year, uniforms for track and field competitors are nothing particularly new — it seems that the trend is to find one look and stick with it for a few decades. We look forward to seeing what the future has in store for the fashions and, until then, love to see all these amazing athletes kick butt no matter what they wear!