As a former Division I runner, I understand the complicated discourse around Nike’s Olympic uniform

“Why is the crotch area SO small?”

My friend and I stood side by side in the track and field office at Columbia University, a cavernous, semi-corporate lair that was part of a network of subterranean passages in the depths of a very old, very grey fitness center. 

We gazed at the new uniforms New Balance — our team’s designated sponsor — had issued. The singlet was not particularly radical: layered shades of white and Columbia’s signature shade, Pantone 292. 

It was the second portion of our new race gear that had given us pause.

As an athlete, you’re accustomed to thinking quite a bit about your body.

Scattered with imprints of a roaring lion (so faint that they just looked like muted polka-dots), the bottoms had a laughably paltry piece of fabric — something like the width of a large safety pin — to cover our nether regions. I recall using the phrase, “reverse thong.”

“Buns,” as they are colloquially referred to by runners, are effectively bikini briefs to begin with. There’s not much fabric to play with, let alone shear off. 

And yet, Nike somehow managed to whittle down one of those offerings for female track and field athletes competing at the upcoming summer 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

The buns backlash

Recently, Citius Magazine shared a preview on Instagram of the men’s and women’s uniforms styled on mannequins, sparking prompt backlash for the skimpy, super-high cut of the women’s leotard. The men’s option showed a tank top and spandex bike shorts. 

“My labia fighting for which one gets to be in the suit,” one user wrote in the comment section on the now-viral post. 

“Men’s sports always get more coverage,” another joked wryly.

Seattle-based women’s running apparel company, Oiselle, jested, “When you run out of fabric after designing the men’s kit . . .”

A number of professional athletes also spoke out in response to the post to vocalize discontent with the uniform.

U.S. long jumper Tara Davis-Woodhall, who finished sixth at the Tokyo games in 2021, wrote, “Wait my hoo haa is gonna be out.”

“This mannequin is standing still and everything’s showing . . . imagine MID FLIGHT,” wrote paralympic long-jumper for Team USA, Jaleen Roberts.

American hurdler and former Olympian Queen Harrison Claye tagged European Wax Center in her comment on Citius’ post, saying, “Would you like to sponsor Team USA for the upcoming Olympic Games!?”

Former five-time NCAA champion Lauren Fleshman slammed the leotard on Instagram as “a costume born of patriarchal forces that are no longer welcome or needed to get eyes on women’s sports.”

“I’m sorry, but show me one WNBA or NWSL team who would enthusiastically support this kit,” she wrote. “Women’s kits should be in service to performance, mentally and physically. If this outfit was truly beneficial to physical performance, men would wear it. This is not an elite athletic kit for track and field.”

Fleshman’s opinions align with what many others have said since Nike unveiled the uniform. And for good reason — the norms that govern professional women’s sports attire, though gradually evolving, are still largely dictated by sexist ideals that we have become societally attuned to. 

Following the ill-received uniform drop, Nike Chief Innovation Officer John Hoke said in a statement, “Nike designed the Paris 2024 track and field kits to offer athletes a range of silhouettes tailored for various sport disciplines, body types and sizes, prioritizing performance and maximum breathability.”

The mixed blessing of wearing buns

As any runner — professional or not — knows, you run best when you’re comfortable and feel empowered. It’s worth noting, then, that many elite women runners are consistently choosing to compete in buns for multiple reasons. The problem with Nike’s leotard selection, insofar as the mannequin shows it, is that it has an unnecessarily soaring cut.

But the problematic aspect of the Olympic leotard is not merely isolated to sexism. Revealing and tight uniforms in women’s running, comfortable and popular as they may be, can compound body image and eating disorder issues that are already endemic to the sport. 

If the Olympic uniform, representative of the gold standard for what competitive athletes strive for, is this ultra-skimpy version, then what does that say about how seriously we’re thinking about the ramifications this could have for impressionable female runners?

As an athlete, you’re accustomed to thinking quite a bit about your body. What you put into it, how it feels during a workout or race, and almost inevitably, what it looks like. For competitive runners, this often boils down to sinewy legs and defined abdominals. Ostensibly, this is an innocuous implication — if you expect to perform at a high level, there’s a certain amount of physical conditioning that must be done. 

However, spurred by a pervasive “thinner is faster” culture wherein struggles with body image are not only widely felt but also heavily normalized, a number of elite college and professional runners succumb to various disordered eating practices. My team was no exception. Throughout my time at Columbia, I watched many teammates and close friends devolve into full-fledged eating disorders, many of which stemmed from a desire to be as fast and fit as possible. 

While the Nike leotard is egregiously sparse, it’s important to note that there are more than 25 style combinations for female athletes, a fact that many people outside the running community are not aware of. It’s a far cry from the European Beach Volleyball Championship in 2021, when the Norwegian women’s team was fined for refusing to wear scanty bikini bottoms at the bronze medal game, opting instead to don shorts. 

In leveling her own criticism at the leotard, American pole vaulter Katie Moon also underscored the multifarious outfit options, writing on Instagram, “When you attack the buns and crop top saying something along the lines of it’s ‘sexist’ (which if that was our only choice, it would be), even if it’s with the best of intentions, you’re ultimately attacking our decision as women to wear it.”

“And if you honestly think that on the most important days of our careers we’re choosing what we wear to appease the men watching over what we’re most comfortable and confident in, to execute to the best of our abilities, that’s pretty offensive,” she added.

When it comes to buns, the sentiment is somewhat mixed, too. 

I’ll start off by saying, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wearing them. There are plenty of benefits to buns’ small size and snappy waistband: many female runners find them to be more comfortable and feel that they stay in place better than traditional shorts.

In college, I liked wearing buns during competitions. Gone were the middle-school days of flowy, parachute shorts that puffed at my thighs like a pastry. Buns, though hardly a deviation from the bathing suits I wore during summer days at the Jersey Shore, legitimized my place in an elite group of Division I runners. Somewhat sanctimonious and totally brazen, they solidified my status and signified that I had “made it” as an athlete. 

It allowed us to showcase our bodies to the world just a bit more, as if to say, “This is the standard, albeit often an unhealthy one, that you should aspire toward.”

This attitude is echoed extensively by women across the running community. In a 2023 New York Times feature on uniform expectations in women’s running, Fleshman described buns as a “badge of honor,” a feeling the outlet noted was shared by more than a dozen interviewees at the collegiate and professional level. 

“The association between smaller, tighter uniforms and success can still be a double-edged sword for many, invoking both power and discomfort,” wrote the Times’ Nell Gallogly. 

But wearing form-fitting, barely there uniforms undeniably begets a host of negative consequences. 

The culture around buns at Columbia was unwaveringly steadfast, which is to say that if you were a middle-distance or long-distance runner (a group I oscillated between, events-wise) you wore them. Like the Olympic team, we had the option to wear shorts instead; however, doing so was deemed odd. Wearing shorts was a choice saturated in quizzical, tight-lipped judgment. Maybe because of the optics of it all, a lack of uniformity, perhaps. But my hunch is that the style standard in elite running had become so entrenched that anything other than a few inches of fabric away from full-frontal was considered taboo. Not to mention, it allowed us to showcase our bodies to the world just a bit more, as if to say, “This is the standard, albeit often an unhealthy one, that you should aspire toward.”

I recall one occasion when a teammate burst into tears over buns. She was panicked that other teammates, spectators, coaches, officials, et. al might be able to see cellulite on her legs. 

And it wasn’t just buns, either. I experienced something similar after returning to campus my sophomore year, feeling slightly swollen from a second wave of puberty and the consequences of weightlifting. The skin-tight tank top we wore in races immediately made me feel insecure, but I told myself I had no recourse other than to shed a few pounds. Like the buns, nobody ever wore the loose-fitting tank top option.

These are hardly irrational concerns. College sports, especially at the DI level, are highly publicized events. There was always a professional photographer at our races, poised to capture every angle. 

Along those lines, buns and snug fabric, ubiquitous as they are to elite running, play heavily into the sport’s psychological component. Running is innately individual sport that weighs heavily on the mind during and outside of competition. It’s not untrue that less fabric could very viably equate to faster times, especially in a sport where milliseconds really do matter. It teeters on the logic underlying why some Olympic swimmers shave, wax and pluck themselves hairless before a race. 

But is less really more? If this adage — the very same that catalyzed many eating disorders, not only on my collegiate team but throughout the world of running — is the sticky framework we are using to outfit runners who stand as the exemplar of the sport, then the problem extends beyond blatant misogyny. Some may argue the link between the two is tenuous. But having seen the insidious pressures of competitive sports firsthand, I feel resolved in saying that the potential for damage knows no bounds, seams, or stitches, for that matter. 

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