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Why Nike's new Olympic track uniform for women is stirring controversy

Elite athletes from around the world joined Nike to unveil the latest Nike Air footwear and team kits at the "Nike On Air" event at the Palais Brongniart in Paris earlier this month.
Nike
Elite athletes from around the world joined Nike to unveil the latest Nike Air footwear and team kits at the "Nike On Air" event at the Palais Brongniart in Paris earlier this month.

Nike revealed a range of new styles and silhouettes for elite athletes last week ahead of the 2024 Olympics, but one article of clothing has raised controversy.

A bodysuit that appears to be cut high on the hips is one of the options for Team USA's track and field. Athletes and fans have criticized the design, saying that the outfit looks uncomfortable and revealing.

Complaints further mounted after Citius Mag, an online magazine that covers track and field, released a side-by-side comparison of the men's and women's uniform — with critics finding the vast differences deeply problematic.

In response to the criticism, Nike said female runners are not limited to the leotard and that the new line offers nearly 50 styles to choose from, including shorts.

"We showcased some of the new Olympic uniforms at the Nike On Air experience in Paris — but, as we are a few months from the Games and working with limited samples in a limited format presentation, not all looks and styles were featured," a Nike spokesperson said in an email.

The company added that it took female athletes' comfort especially seriously, which is why it raised the neckline for tops.

USA Track and Field said its athletes were consulted throughout the design process. "Athlete options and choices were the driving force for USATF in the planning process with Nike," the USATF said in a statement.

Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, said she supports athletes having options. "I think that's important. We want to make sure athletes have choices that they're comfortable in," she told reporters.

The backlash comes less than two months after Nike was scrutinized over its new uniforms for Major League Baseball players, which some said looked see-through and of poor quality.

This time, Nike's designs were caught in the long-running discourse over sexism in women's sports attire.

U.S. national champion distance runner Lauren Fleshman said the track and field kit specifically displayed on the mannequin lacked the professionalism that top women athletes deserve.

"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," she wrote on Instagram.

On social media, some fans asked if the mannequin outfit was for swimming events. Others expressed concern that the fit will sexualize sportswomen, given the uniforms' lack of coverage.

Pole vaulting Olympic gold medalist Katie Moon said while the uniform was troubling, she is in favor of female athletes having more options rather than less when it comes to attire.

"Even if its with best of intentions, you're ultimately attacking our decision as women to wear it," Moon wrote on Instagram. "The point is we DO have the choice of what to wear, and whether we feel the best in a potato sack or a bathing suit during competitions, we should support the autonomy.

Before the backlash, Nike said the uniforms were the "most athlete-informed, data-driven and visually unified the company has ever produced." The clothes were tailored to support a range of body types and sports disciplines while maximizing breathability, Nike Chief Innovation Officer John Hoke said in a press release Thursday.

Nike also plans to provide custom tailoring at the games.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.