Team USA’s (40-Year) Style Evolution
LONDON — Old Olympic editions of Sports Illustrated are a style archivist’s goldmine. Forty years ago in our coverage of Team USA — the sports stories that were were written before Munich’s Games turned tragic — one could find images of a freestyle wrestler the size of a sumo, an 800-meter runner in a golf hat, an archer with star-patterned sleeves and a race-walker who may have inspired the cross-country jogging look of Forrest Gump. Below are the shots I pulled from SI’s files of ’72′s style stars, matched up with their 2012 counterparts, who tend to be slimmer, sleeker and less hirsute. That doesn’t necessarily mean they look better.
(Then: Neil Leifer/SI – Now: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
The YouTube of Wottle’s 800 is epic: He overtakes the entire field in the last quarter of the race; announcer Jim McKay is yelling, “He’s got one Kenyan … he’s got the other Kenyan,” as Wottle makes his passes; and Wottle does it all while wearing a hat with crisscrossing golf clubs on it. He was so stunned by winning gold that he forgot to take the hat off on the medal stand. Symmonds, who finished well out of the medals in London, is far too slick for a hat. His signature is the piece of tape on his left shoulder, worn in protest of the IAAF’s ban on athletes branding themselves. (He has previously sold temporary tattoo space there as a way to fund his training.)
(Then: Jerry Cooke/SI – Now: David E. Klutho/SI)
Here, the hat/no-hat dichotomy gets flipped. Williams, the ’72 gold medalist in individual men’s archery, wore one of the great U.S. unis ever: blue-star sleeves, white body and white long pants. Ellison won a team silver in a uni that comparatively took no risks, comprising a red Nike shirt and blue shorts.
(Then: James Drake/SI – Now: Charlie Neibergall/AP)
Taylor wrestled in an era where there was weight cap on the heaviest division, and checked in at 412 pounds. He was famously thrown in the ’72 Games by German Wilfred Dietrich in this match, archived on YouTube:
Team USA’s biggest wrestler in London is Dlagnev, who wrestles in the 120kg-cap division, weighing 265 pounds. Anyone Taylor’s size in 2012 could only wrestle professionally, which he briefly tried in the AWA before retiring. He passed away from heart complications at the age of 29.
(Then: Neil Leifer/SI – Now: Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
Young, who rocked this fabulous combination of flag-hat, beard and mullet, was a two-time bronze medalist in race-walking … and he now is a sculptor specializing in massive bronze monuments. (Seriously.) Current U.S. race-walking rep Nunn is an Army man who neither sculpts nor wears his hair long.
(Then: Jerry Cooke/SI – Now: Heinz Kluetmeier/SI)
King won gold in the 3m springboard in Munich wearing a stars-and-bars suit that makes those of current U.S. divers — including the synchronized 3m duo of Abigail Johnson and Kelci Bryant — look ultra-conservative. The ’72 games were redemption for King after she fell out of first place in ’68 when she broke her left arm on a dive.
(Then: Heinz Kluetmeier/SI – Now: Mike Powell/SI)
Phelps has long surpassed Spitz’s record medal haul and is now the most decorated Olympian of all-time. But Spitz at least has him beat on a signature celebration scene — with better jumpsuits, too. The 2012 U.S. swimmers did plenty of medal-winning but no hoisting-on-shoulders.
(Then: Neil Leifer/SI – Now: John W. McDonough/SI)
Yet another thing lacking from the current version of the Dream Team: an afro, although James Harden’s beard may be the facial equivalent. Bantom still had a year left at St. Joe’s when he appeared in the ’72 Games. After losing to the Soviet Union in the most controversial gold-medal game ever, Bantom went back to Philly and had an All-America senior season, then was drafted No. 8 overall by the Suns. Westbrook, Team USA’s current No. 7, has been a professional (and millionaire) since 2008.