“We’re in a crystal arms race”: Why the US Olympic gymnasts’ leotards boast nearly 5,000 Swarovski crystals

Red, white, and blue—and crystal.
Red, white, and blue—and crystal.
Image: Under Armour
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When the eyes of the world are on the US women’s gymnastics team at the Rio 2016 Olympics, they will see sparkles.

The effect will come from almost 5,000 Swarovski crystals applied to each uniform, which carry an average value of $1,200 a piece, according to a wonderful, in-depth look (paywall) at the ongoing crystallization of the Olympic outfits from the New York Times.

By comparison, the cost of a typical leotard from GK Elite and Under Armour, which partnered to create the official uniforms of the US team, rarely exceeds $200, based on the options available on GK Elite’s site. The custom-fit US women’s uniforms likely cost more, but it still suggests there are several hundred dollars worth of crystals on the leotard of each of the five female gymnasts.

We’ve reached out to GK Elite and will update this story with any new information.

Athletes aren’t judged on how their leotards look—at least not officially. But the uniforms play their own role. “Gymnastics is based on opinion,” Adam Clement, Under Armour’s lead designer on the US gymnastics uniforms and the company’s senior creative director for team sports, recently told Sports Illustrated. “It is judges sitting down and rating what they saw, and the outfit becomes a huge component of it. This whole idea of this needing to be a surprise so judges have an initial surprise does impact how they rate the event.”

The Olympic uniforms seem to become flashier—and cut a little higher on the leg—with each passing games. And over the past few Olympics, the number of crystals covering them has risen substantially. The Times reports that the leotard of gold-medal winner Nastia Liukin at the 2008 Beijing Olympics had 184 crystals. Just four years later, when Gabby Douglas won gold in London, hers had 1,188. That figure has more than doubled for these Olympic games.

Even though the crystals aren’t heavy enough to affect performance, demand for more bedazzling uniforms isn’t slowing. Swarovski plans to launch a new crystal product, called the Concise Crystal, this fall. It will be half the weight of the current stones. The company is also improving the high-tech machines that apply the crystals to fabric.

“We’re in a crystal arms race,” Alexander Wellhoefer, Swarovski’s senior vice president for North America, told the Times.

The US uniforms, as one would expect, are heavy on red, white, and blue. Under Armour has only revealed one look so far. Each Olympian gets eight competition leotards, as well as 12 leotards for training. But pictures showing some of the others appear to be surfacing on social media.

Officially, however, they will debut at the games, where they’ll be a surprise for the audience and the judges.