Olympic Wrestling And The Singlet

By Ross Bendik
Uni Watch

“Am I really going to wear a singlet?”

That was the last question I had to answer before I committed to joining my high school’s wrestling team in the early 90s. I was a self-conscious freshman and wearing a tight, one-piece uniform did not seem like an easy path to popularity. Not that wrestling was the most popular sport in my high school — few of my classmates knew much about the sport, beyond the uniform. It’s probably the sport’s most identifiable component — see the icon ESPN uses for wrestling on their mobile app – and the most ridiculed.  

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Given that, it is no surprise that the singlet has been under fire for decades as a barrier to the growth of our beloved sport. Some feel we would see greater youth participation if we had a more modern uniform. Others feel wrestling is losing merchandising dollars on replica or throwback uniform sales to fans. The two-piece uniform, compression shirts and shorts, started making an appearance in NCAA wrestling in 2005. In 2019, the NCAA approved fight shorts and the anti-singlet momentum continues to grow.  

Regardless of the momentum, when the greatest male and female wrestlers in the world took to the mat in the Tokyo Olympics over the past week, they wore singlets. Let’s take a quick look at the history of Olympic singlets and the current rules that dictate the styles worn on the mat. 

After combing through the photo archives of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, the singlet appears to make its Olympic debut in 1912. In the prior modern Olympics, most wrestlers wore tight fitting t-shirts and shorts, which is ironically the style that the sport is slowly moving back to. This debut is almost 60 years before singlets became the mandated style of collegiate wrestling. Dan Gable, one of the icons of the sport of wrestling, did not wear a singlet while he competed at Iowa State, but did wear a singlet when he took gold in the 1972 Munich Olympics.

From a style perspective, the style of the singlets (fabric excluded) worn in Stockholm in 1912, are not that different than the style of the singlets worn on the mats this summer in Tokyo. However, there has been a range in styles in the century between Stockholm and Tokyo.

Singlets became consistently smaller throughout the following Olympics. The inseams grew shorter and the torsos became more narrow, less resembling a tank top. This trend continued in to the 1980s, when singlets began to look more like a pair of short shorts with suspenders than the modern-day singlet. For my generation, this was the first style of singlet that many of us saw. After the 80s, inseams reversed trend began to increase again and the upper half began to look more like a tight tank top. Singlets hit their modern cut and proportions at the 2004 Olympics in Greece, coinciding with the introduction of women’s Olympic wrestling.

United World Wrestling (UWW) provides the guidelines for Olympic singlets. The guidelines outline the maximum length of necklines and arm cuts and minimum length of inseams. These maximum measurements prevent the return of the low-cut singleton the Olympic stage. The guidelines also require the three digit National Olympic Committee (NOC) country code and wrestler last name to be printed on the back of the singlet. That a rare combination of NOC and NOB for those who get it™. However, the guideline that might have biggest impact on the look of singlets is the Color Marking requirements. 

Wrestling scoring distinguishes wrestlers by color. One wrestler is blue, one wrestler is red. To facilitate this scoring system, Olympic singlets are required to have three red or blue markings, or more specifically, Pantone 2347C and Pantone 299C. These three marking consist of one 7 centimeter band on each leg and one 7 centimeter band on the back below the name and country. The markings are “uninterrupted sport-specific design components which must remain untouched from any graphic, logo or third party identification.”

These markings create a potential design challenge as counties have to incorporate a red or a blue into their singlet identity. Some may even have to drop a core color — think about the challenge of a blue singlet for Canada. In the Tokyo Olympics, this has been addressed through a few approaches:

• Markings Only: In a markings-only singlet design, a country creates a singlet design true to its national flag colors and does not add any red or blue elements to the core of the design. The red or blue is only visible in the markings. 

• Blue-ing / Red-ing: This isn’t quite blue for blue sake because it’s a requirement to have blue, but countries will create a mostly red or blue singlet style with their national colors as accent colors, if red and blue are not a national color. See India’s Blue singlet. 
• Combination Colors: The UWW has a list of combination colors that can be used as primary for both red and blue. Some countries will use combination colors with country colors to create their singlet design. See China’s Blue singlet, where black is an approved combination color.

After looking at all the trends this year, stripes are definitely in. Many singlet designs have stripes in their designs. One of the most talked about style elements from this Olympics is the common horizontal stripped Nike style. Multiple countries wearing Nike singlets have the similar horizontal stripped singlet style, including the United States, Canada, Serbia, and Estonia. This has been a bit confusing for those of that initially assumed their country would be the only country in that style. Fortunately, the regulations don’t restrict all creativity. The Krygystan’s men team has a shark on their singlets, based on a nickname of one of their top wrestlers — not because the landlocked country is associated with sharks. 

Looking forward to future Olympics, we may eventually see wrestling move away from singlets. Wrestling is known for being very traditional, but after wrestling was briefly dropped form the Olympics in a 2013 vote, the sport has made quicker, bolder moves.  

There has also been a fascinating evolution in the uniform of the other person on the mat during a wrestling match — the referee. Like many referees, wrestling referees have to make judgement calls and their decisions are often challenged by loud, sometimes aggressive coaches and fans. Wrestling referees have to convey authority, trust, and unbiased infallibility. Wrestling referees also have to be mobile – sometimes quickly diving to the mat to check control and shoulder positions.

In the early Olympics, the referees uniform spoke to authority and trust. They wore sports coats and hats. As the Olympic moved indoors, the coat and hat were dropped. In 1948, referee uniforms went all white, using the color to convey the pure, unbiased infallibility of the referee. During the white era, the uniforms became slightly more casual over time, from a very preppy look in 1948 to a more casual look starting in the 1970s and running through the 2000 Olympics. My favorite uniform from the white era is the red and blue color blocked sleeves of the LA 1984 Olympics. However, I have heard that the all-white uniforms did not hold up well during long day of wrestling matches.

After the white era, there was a short return to the formal era. Sports coats returned in 2004 and a tie was added for Beijing 2008 and in London 2012, conforming to the formal Olympic staff uniform. The tie was definitely peak formality for referees. The tie may have also been a little too much as there was a drastic change in style for the following Olympics in Rio in 2016. Referees work the casual staff Olympic uniform, which was clearly more about mobility than formality. Wresting referees wore khaki cargo pants with green piping on the pockets and a polo shirt with an asymmetrical design. 

After going from sport coat and tie to piped cargo pants, I was very curious what we would see referees wearing in these 2020ne Olympics as both a formal and casual uniform were released. Wrestling referees took the mat in the casual uniform. The uniform consisted of slim fit grey pants that have zippers around the knee to convert to shorts. The top is an untucked polo with a gradient, asymmetrical design based on the Olympic logo. This is by far the most casual of any Olympic wrestling referee uniform.

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