Despite their ban from the Olympics for systemic doping, Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in the games—they’re just not allowed to represent Russia. Wait a minute, you say. What does that look like? Or, as the case may be, not look like? Banning a Russian athlete from representing Russia means neutralizing the uniform and the insignia they wear, creating a provocative design challenge: How do you take the Russian-ness out of Russia?
The Olympic Opening Ceremonies is one of the biggest branding showcases in the world, where countries communicate their current mood to the global community. “Fashion is a huge part of soft power,” says Anastasiia Fedorova, a cultural critic in London.
This year, Russia, a country that goes to great lengths to project its strength (gotta love those shirtless Putin photos), will see its athletes march in what look like knockoff red and gray Adidas track suits stamped with a circular “Olympic Athlete from Russia” mark on the chest. This adheres to the design guidelines released by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) last December, which stipulate that the athlete’s uniforms can only have two wordmarks, “Olympic Athlete from Russia” or “OAR;” that Russia’s national emblems must be replaced with the OAR logo; and that only single or dual color elements are permitted on uniforms. And separate items of clothing are not allowed to create Russia’s signature red, white, and blue tricolor when worn together.
All of these requirements seem like a great effort to censure Russia, without really censuring them. They aren’t supposed to be representing their nation, but they’re clearly representing their nation. (See the “Olympic Athlete from Russia” logo.) 99U reached out to the IOC, but they declined to comment for this story.
So what do designers think of the mark? “Whoever designed it was obviously told to make it as bland as possible,” says Steven Heller, author of Iron Fist, Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State. “It’s a seal without being a seal. You have to decipher it.” Heller likens the design to a 1980s supermarket trend, where product names were presented in black Helvetica type against a white background, to see if the most generic product design imaginable sold better. (It didn’t.)
Then there’s the circular type, with all the letters the same size, capitalized, and kerned to appear interconnected (and unreadable). “It’s only done in situations like E Pluribus Unum, where you know what it says,” says Bonnie Siegler, founder of Eight and a Half design studio. “This is daring you to read it in its illegibility.” And therein lies the rub.
The neutral uniform design stands out only for its stark contrast to designs from previous years. From fur hats to intertwined khokhloma florets, past Russian uniforms have embraced opulence and the country’s folkloric history. But the Olympics that really made an impression? That would be the 1980 Summer Games held in Moscow, when Adidas was selected to design the Soviet Union’s Olympic team uniforms. The iconic tracksuit embedded Adidas in Russian national identity for decades. “Adidas was the first global brand Soviet people were exposed to,” says Fedorova, “It was so prestigious to own a pair of trainers or a tracksuit, people would wear them to the theater or a lush restaurant.”
Look closer at this year’s rush job, pulled together by Moscow-based athletic wear company Zasport in less than a month for Pyeongchang: the simple red-and-gray tracksuits sport double white stripes running down the arm and pants leg. Look familiar? They’re not unlike the Adidas suits that stole Russia’s heart at the 1980 Olympics.
(99U reached out to Zasport for comment, but at the time of publication, had not heard back.)
Extranational teams have a creative history at the Olympics. During the Cold War, East and West Germany designed a compromise flag that emblazoned the Olympic rings on top of a set of black, gold, and red stripes. In 2016, Syrian artist Yara Said created a flag inspired by the design of a life jacket that the newly formed Refugee Team competes under. And this year, North and South Korea have agreed to march as one team under a flag displaying a unified Korean peninsula. In all cases, graphic design was used to communicate an identity beyond a single nation-state.
If these groups are not bound by nations, are even more radical redesigns possible? “In the past years, more and more athletes have expressed themselves in terms of their gender identity or their political identity,” says Jilly Traganou, author of Designing the Olympics: Representation, Participation, Contestation. “Give individuals agency to have expression and affiliate with a group they feel strongly about.” Like Siegler, Traganou envisions a white flag at these post-national Olympics with every athlete walking behind it. “They would all wear white,” she says. “No states. No meaning. No identity.”
Until that day, let’s turn the focus back to what the Games are really about: winning (by which we obviously mean healthy competition and sportsmanship). “The Olympics is always a place where nations get together and try to out-muscle one another,” says Heller. “Whether they out-muscle with the physical prowess of their athletes or their graphics.” May the best identity win.