x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Athletes aim for faster, higher, stronger – and more glamorous

The focus on Olympic athletes seems to be shifting from their performance to their appearance.

I realise you have probably heard just about quite enough on the whole Olympic thing, but bear with me here. In terms of style, there's been a lot to observe, debate and comment on, starting, of course with the opening ceremony.

There's no doubt Team USA got the gold for overall 'preppiness' in their white brogues paired with ankle socks, followed closely by the Netherlands in their sharp royal blue jackets and orange trousers and not forgetting of course, the Bermudans, who always deserve a salute for their famous shorts and knee socks.

Poor old Spain, however, who even looked uneasy, shuffled out looking like a troupe of waiters, while team GB marched out in white rain jackets with shiny gold lapels and collars like a group of washed out Elvis impersonators. It's worth pointing out that Stella McCartney, who designed the athletes actual kits, quickly issued a statement explaining she had nothing to do with them.

But what has been more interesting (or alarming, depending on how you choose to look at it) has been this new, unwavering fascination with the athletes' grooming. In addition to their incredible achievements, sterling sportsmanship and numerous broken world records, a perplexing amount of attention has also been given to their appearance; their grooming, their hair and even their nails. It's a result, of course, of the media's thirst to fill their column inches and 24-hour rolling news coverage, fuelled by that voracious throng of commentators from Twitter and other social media. But wherever it's come from, it's a distraction I'm not sure we need.

The athletes' patriotic nail art phenomenon has been one on-going saga. What used to be an anomaly (remember the American sprinter, Florence Griffith-Joyner) now seems to be part of the kit. The French basketball player Emmeline Ndongue showed intricate red, white and blue stripes on her nails, while US volleyball's Destinee Hooker added the Union Jack flag and the Olympic rings to her team colours in support of the hosts.

It's not just the women who have been indulging, either. Team USA swimmer Ryan Lochte (the fourth man in history to have graced the cover of American Vogue) had a custom-made American flag dental grill made for the occasion. When it was time to collect his gold medal, he wanted to do so with this mouthful of patriotic diamond stars and stripes, but thankfully was banned.

With all these eyes on the athletes' faces and hair, those beauty industry big boys with big bucks tie-ins with the Games must be very happy indeed.

For their Olympics-related campaign, Procter & Gamble, who make Pantene shampoo, have used 11 athletes, including the British cycling gold medalist Victoria Pendleton, for a huge global advertising campaign, while Max Factor actually had an official make-up "look" for the London 2012 that, remarkably, was to be worn by all female volunteers, medal bearers and escorts during the 805 victory ceremonies. Over the top? Just a little.

Amid all this nonsense, we've found a true role model in Gabby Douglas, the Team USA gymnast and first ever African-American woman to win an all-around gold medal in gymnastics. Despite an almost perfect display of sportsmanship during her events, she was criticised for her so-called "messy" hairstyle (a folded over ponytail with numerous clips holding it in place). Her response to her critics was valiant: "I just made history and people are focused on my hair?" she said. "It can be bald or short, it doesn't matter. Nothing is going to change. You might as well just stop talking about it."