In a Branding Sprint: Competing for your country or your sponsor?
Ryan Whitacre in 2012 Olympics: Sports, Beyond the Games, Los Angeles, Sports

Photo courtesy of Nike

How much should corporate branding, like the Nike swoosh, be a part of Olympic uniform design? Uniform supplier logos have been on jerseys, singlets, shorts, and swimsuits for decades, but gradually the logos have increased in size to the point where they have almost equal billing with the Stars & Stripes, Union Jack, or Drapeau Tricolore. The barrier has eroded between the representation of one’s country and representing one’s sponsors, and when the corporate logo becomes the focal point of uniforms, viewers and Olympians alike may lose true sight of the games.

What interests me is how to mitigate this branding power struggle. Supplier advertising on Olympic uniforms is never going to go away, but we need to ask ourselves what the proper balance is between corporate branding and nationalistic branding. The Olympics have a unique set of circumstances in that the athletes themselves have become the branding tool in spite of the fact that the Olympics is largely an amateur sporting event. Some of the well-known early examples of Olympian-driven advertising include the Reebok advertisements for largely unknown decathletes Dan & Dave (Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson) leading up to the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona and sprinter Michael Johnson’s famous golden Nike track shoes at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Johnson won gold medals in the 200 and 400 meter events wearing spectacular 24-karat gold shoes made especially for him that were the lightest track shoes ever created to date. In this case, the shoes, developed and promoted by Nike, helped propel Johnson to stardom by creating a tangible symbol of his success. However, Johnson ultimately represented the USA, gold shoes and all. Thus, who deserved the larger share of glory: USA or Nike?

For the London Olympics, Nike, Adidas/Reebok, Puma, Speedo, and others have created new designs for each country that not only act as a visual bond between members of the same country, but also create a visual bond between nations wearing the same company’s product. In track and field, for example, the Nike-clad countries of the USA, Canada, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and Estonia are all wearing a uniform designed from the same visual template, only with the colors changed to represent each nation.

In addition to the unified jersey template, each team’s uniforms were unveiled with matching imagery and each team will compete with Nike’s “volt” lime green track shoes, a bold color debuted by the University of Oregon football team (also outfitted by Nike) in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game. Does this standardization tend to blur the line between national identities and promote “Team Nike?” Also of note is that the swoosh logo on the right chest area of these uniforms is equal in size, if not larger, than the country’s flag or shield on the left chest area, further reinforcing the notion that these athletes represent Nike and not their representative countries.

On the other hand, some other countries have developed a consistent visual identity with their uniform supplier which fosters more of a unique national identity than identifying with a corporation. China’s uniforms, supplied by Nike, are very consistent from sport to sport, as are Australia’s, provided by Adidas, which utilizes the familiar green and gold as well as the kangaroo.

In addition, host nation Great Britain teamed up with Adidas and fashion designer Stella McCartney to create one continuous identity across all 46 sports, which has even received coverage from high fashion publications like Vogue.

In the attempt to seek a balance between corporate branding and nationalistic representation, I would personally deem the Adidas designs to be more successful than the Nike ones simply due to the fact that the Adidas designs do not follow a common design template across all countries they outfit. They were willing to make each country’s coordinated appearance rather unique through the use of iconography, as in Australia’s kangaroo, or through collaboration with top designers, as with Great Britain’s. Nike’s unified design for China is a step in the right direction away from the chevron template most other Nike-outfitted countries are using, but is still a bit austere and lacking personality.

As performance aesthetics continue to play a significant role in the design of Olympic uniforms, I’m curious to see whether the literal image put forth by the athletes reflect more on the nation they represent or the display of sponsors. Likewise, what message will their display send to spectators about the future of Olympic sponsorship?

Ryan Whitacre
Ryan Whitacre is an architectural designer in Gensler’s Sports & Entertainment studio in the Los Angeles office, where he serves as the studio’s sustainable design leader. In addition to the design of sports venues, he is also passionate about prefabricated assembly techniques, sustainable building design, and the nexus between sport and aesthetics (logos, uniforms, branding, etc.). Contact him at
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