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8 Photos That Prove Gymnastics Leotards Are Basically the Best Reason to Watch The Olympics

From simple polyester to shiny and bedazzled!

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Comité International Olympique (CIO)

1928: Long pants for men

The sport of gymnastics is derived from the ancient Greek word for “disciplinary exercises,” which seems appropriate given the physically intensive nature of a sport that combines control, grace, strength, acrobatic skill, and flexibility. Gymnastics was strictly a sport for men until 1936. Here, Switzerland’s Georges Meiz is shown competing in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic games. He is photographed here on the parallel bars, wearing a white tank top and long pants. In the earlier Olympic games, male gymnasts from Germany, Sweden, Italy, and Switzerland dominated the sport.

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Comité International Olympique (CIO)

1952-1956: Bathing suit look-alikes

In the 1950s, many Olympic gymnasts wore leotards that looked much like bathing costumes. Here, Hungary’s Margit Korondi is pictured wearing an all-black two-piece outfit at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Though seemingly modest by modern day standards, this leotard was much tighter and sleeker than the boxy leotards worn in the 1930s and 40s, which allowed for a greater range of motion. Here, Korondi is pictured on the uneven bars, an event for which she took home the gold medal.

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1964-1972: Simple v-necks

In the 1960s and 70s, leotards began to take the tight-fitting shape they have today. Here, Larissa Latynina competes for the USSR in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics wearing a simple v-neck polyester leotard. After 1960, colorful fabric and hi-cut legs became standard, as well as sleeves and collars lined in white. Larissa’s leotard has a traditional emblem on the chest to represent the USSR, which became a trend until the 1990s. Before Michael Phelps broke the world record, Larissa was the only athlete in any sport to have won 18 Olympic Medals.

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Comité International Olympique (CIO)

1976: Athletic and patriotic

In the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Romania’s Nadia Comaneci became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 for her performance on the uneven bars, a historic moment that propelled the sport of gymnastics into the spotlight. During her victory, she wore white long sleeve Adidas leotard with stripes running own the side in the colors of Romania’s flag. Much like the leotards of the 1960s, Nadia’s has an Emblem of Romania right below the neckline. Though not completely skin-tight, her leotard shows off her athletic build.

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Comité International Olympique (CIO)

1976: Plain on purpose

One of Nadia’s rivals in the 1976 Olympics was USSR’s Olga Korbut, who wore a purple “tuxedo style” leotard during her balance beam performance. Like Nadia’s, her leotard is long-sleeved and has hi-cut legs to create the illusion of longer limbs. The leotards of this era were rather plain, so as to emphasize the gymnasts’ talents over their clothing. At seventeen years old Olga won three gold medals, and charmed the world in an era when Communist Soviet Union was seen as cold and unemotional. She left a legacy by bringing a spotlight to the sport and inspiring future girls to pursue gymnastics.

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Comité International Olympique (CIO) / United Archives

1984-2000: Americana all the way

In the 1980s and 90s, patriotic flag-inspired uniforms became the norm; the American team was consistently decked out in stars and stripes. Legs were higher cut than ever before and necklines became higher as well. During the 1990s, fabric technology improved the elasticity of the leotard. They were now made out of velour, velvet, foil, and mesh rather than polyester. Pictured here, Mary Lou Retton won a gold medal in the individual all-around competition, in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She was the first American woman to win a gold medal in gymnastics.

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Kishimoto/IOC / SUGIMOTO, Hiroki

2000-2004: Shinier and tighter

In the early 2000s, leotard fabric became shinier to better showcase gymnasts’ muscular physiques. Form-fitting, iridescent materials like lycra and spandex show off abs, triceps, and biceps. These leotards also have a practical use, as loose clothing can inhibit a gymnast’s safety. According to GK Elite, the global leader for gymnastics apparel, their leotards are engineered to have the best fit possible while withstanding wash and wear. Here, Romania’s team is shown at the podium during the 2004 Athens games.

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Comité International Olympique (CIO) / HUET, John

2008-Present day: Emphasis on dressiness and performance

In 2012, the U.S team became known for their hot pink and bright red leotards adorned with thousands of Swarovski crystals. GK Elite, the choice leotard company of the U.S. and many other Olympic teams, makes their leotards out of a fabric called “Mystique,” which according to the company “looks a little dressier and classier than something that has a dull finish.” The GK Elite leotards have a compression fit, which make them tight-fitting and supportive. It takes about 18 months of meetings to perfect the leotards for the U.S. team. Each girl had eight different leotards in the 2012 Olympics. Depending on the design, they cost up to $500. According to GK Elite, the goal of an Olympic leotard is to inspire confidence in the gymnast, as the USA leotards tend to be “very symmetrical, regal, and elegant.” Gabby Douglas, pictured in her hot pink leotard on the beam apparatus, was the first African American woman to become the Olympic all-around champion for gymnastics.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest