Pre-Sochi tour of our Winter Olympics collections

Excited about the Winter Olympics? We indulge our Olympic fever with curator Jane Rogers, who shares a few favorite and less-expected objects from our sports collection.

I love the Olympics! I especially love the Winter Olympics because I can actually ski and skate; not as well as an Olympian, but I can do it. That is saying a lot for this athletically-challenged sports curator. I also love the "idea" of the Olympic Games: bringing nations together in peaceful competition if only for a few weeks every two years. For a little while, the world is held together by sport and problems seem to fade into the background while the Games are on. This might not always seem to be the case, but the "idea" is nice.

Apolo Anton Ohno’s short track speed skates used in the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City
Apolo Anton Ohno's short track speed skates used in the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City

The Olympics also provide me, as a curator, with the opportunity to collect more fun objects for the sports collections! Although I have never been to an Olympic games, I have had the opportunity to contact many Olympic athletes and acquire objects for the national collection that are an integral part of American sports history.

The museum has a fairly comprehensive Olympic collection. It includes objects from the athletes who have had the honor of competing in the Games, volunteers who have worked at the Games, and fans who have cheered for their country, favorite team, or athlete. The objects in our collection come from both the Summer and Winter Games, and from almost every year the modern Olympics have been held since 1896.

The short-track speed skates worn by Apolo Anton Ohno are one of the most popular objects from the 2002 Winter Olympic games. They have been exhibited at the museum many times, and are on temporary display in American Stories at the moment. The skates were the ones he wore when he won the gold medal in the 1500 meter race. The skates were made by the RBC Revolutionary Boot Company, and are silver with gold and silver colored Maple Duro blades. Ohno's skates, along with the speed skins he wore, were offered to the museum in 2007 by Apolo and his father. These skates represent a talented and determined athlete who won two gold, two silver, and four bronze medals during his Olympic career; making him the most decorated American Winter Olympic athlete of all time.

Apolo Anton Ohno at the 2006 Torino games
Apolo Anton Ohno at the 2006 Torino games

Another speed skater who appeared in four Winter Olympic Games from 1984 to 1994 is also among the most decorated athletes of the Winter Games. Bonnie Blair won a bronze in the 1988 Calgary Games and gold in the 1988, 1992, and the 1994 Games, making her one of the most successful American women speed skaters of all time.

Blair donated the speed skins she wore during the 1992 Albertville Games in which she won gold in the 500 and 1000 meter races. The Lycra body suit, made by Mizuno, is designed to let air flow past the body more quickly. These skins traveled the country for five years in the exhibition, Sports: Breaking Records, Breaking Barriers in which Blair was represented with fellow Olympians Bobby Morrow, Dominique Dawes, Brian Boitano, and the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team. Ellen Roney Hughes, the curator of that exhibit, recognized the Olympic athletes as those who "broke down walls for women, racial and ethnic groups, and impoverished nations. The Games endure as a symbol of global community. The athletes embody that symbol."

Mizuno speed skin worn by Bonnie Blair at the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympic Games
Mizuno speed skin worn by Bonnie Blair at the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympic Games

Like short track and speed skating, figure skating has been one of the more popular events at the Winter Olympics since its debut in the 1908 Games. Brian Boitano is an Olympian who brought the world to its feet with a spectacular long program to win the gold in the Men's Figure Skating competition at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. With the proliferation of media at the Games, the 1988 "Battle of the Brians" became one of the more anticipated events at the Games and a must-see primetime event for the American television audience. Canada's Brian Orser led in the preliminary rounds and won the short program, which set the stage for the winner-take-all long program. It was close, but Boitano edged out Orser for the gold and became the first American to land a triple axel in competition.

Brian Boitano skating the gold-medal-winning long program at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary
Brian Boitano skating the gold-medal-winning long program at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary

After winning the gold, Boitano donated the Harlick skates with the "good luck" American flag on the ankle which he wore during each event of the 1988 Olympics. He also donated the practice outfit and the "military style" costume he wore during his gold-medal-winning long program, along with a sketch of his long program. The sketch looks like a scribbled mess on paper but translated to a beautiful routine on the ice. Boitano is still active in figure skating and was recently named to the delegation President Obama plans to send to the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Original sketch from Boitano’s long program, 1988
Original sketch from Boitano’s long program, 1988

One of the more recent additions to the sports of the Winter Olympics is snowboarding, appearing for the first time at the Nagano games in 1998. Since then, snowboarding has grown from two events to four, adding the most recent, Slopestyle event, to the 2014 Sochi games. Beginning in the X-Games, snowboarding increased in popularity after winning Olympic recognition and brought many young and talented athletes to the world stage.

Hannah Teter began her career in 2002 and quickly became a World Cup, X-Games, and Olympic medal winner, earning a gold medal in the halfpipe at the 2006 Torino Games. After winning silver at the 2010 Winter Games, Hannah graciously donated the snowboard boots she used in Vancouver. These boots represent the free spirit that snowboarding athletes have, as the boots are white with red flowers, less conservative than some of the uniforms and equipment used in other sports at the Games. Snowboarders have brought a more relaxed fashion sense to the Games with their loose fitting outerwear, this year designed by snowboarding’s Burton.

Hannah Teter waiting at the starting gate before her silver medal run on the halfpipe at the 2010 Vancouver Games
Hannah Teter waiting at the starting gate before her silver medal run on the halfpipe at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Image credit: Susie Flores. 

Fashion has become more pervasive in Olympic culture over the years and each sport has had their uniforms designed by leading industry manufacturers and designers such as Burton, Polo Ralph Lauren, Nike, and Roots, to name a few. This fashion trend for the US Olympic teams began at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid with the introduction of the "U.S. Olympic Team's distinctive clothing designed for the opening parade."

Sketch for the warm-up suits that were worn by the Olympic athletes while on the medal stand during the 1980 Lake Placid Games
Sketch for the warm-up suits that were worn by the Olympic athletes while on the medal stand during the 1980 Lake Placid Games

Beginning in 1977, Levi Strauss & Co. worked with over 2,000 athletes to fit and design casual clothing for the opening parade, the outfits worn by athletes on the awards stand, and warm-up attire for each member of the 1980 Olympic team. Levi Strauss donated these outfits to the museum in 1981, forever linking cowboy Western wear and denim bib overalls to the fashion genre of the early 1980s. Fashion has always been a reflection of American culture, so it was only natural for fashion to become an integral part of the Olympic experience.

Levi Strauss designed these outfits for the athletes during the opening ceremonies of the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid
Levi Strauss designed these outfits for the athletes during the opening ceremonies of the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid

The Olympic experience is different for everyone, and these objects are meant to reflect that—the dedicated athlete, the competitive spirit, the underdog, the inclusion of extreme sports within the Olympic framework, and the immeasurable influence that the Olympics have had on American and world culture. When acquiring these objects for the collections, curators look for such inspiration, innovation, and determination within the athletes as well as the tools which they use to perform above their ability.

We hope these star-spangled objects will speak for the athletes and convey their hope, fortitude, and national identity. I hope these objects inspire you to hit the slopes or the rink; or maybe just watch the Sochi Games from your couch! I plan on watching the Games and taking notes so that I might contact some winners, and maybe some non-winners, from the U.S. team and collect some more cool stuff!

Jane Rogers is an Associate Curator in the National Museum of American History’s Division of Culture and the Arts. She has also blogged about the 1948 Olympics in London.

Posted at 12:07 pm EST in From the Collections

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