07/20/2012 01:15 pm ET | Updated Sep 19, 2012

Ponies and Stripes Forever: The Olympics' Shameless Polo Product Placement


Courtesy: iStockphoto

The furor continues. In case you missed it, the U.S. Olympic Team uniforms were made in China. And, as is the case with many trending stories, Congress has gotten on the bandwagon.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid said he was "upset" at a Capitol Hill news conference on taxes. House Speaker John Boehner, referring to the United States Olympic Committee, quipped, "You'd think they'd know better." New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Steve Israel sent a letter of protest to the Committee and filed legislation requiring future U.S. ceremonial uniforms be made in the U.S. That's some pretty high level bipartisan uproar.

A PR blunder, no doubt, but one that was made consecutively at the 2008 and 2010 Olympics -- with some notice. Still, the 2012 USOC didn't see fit to make Ralph Lauren's Olympic uniform contract contingent upon them being made in the U.S. So, like any bottom line-driven clothing manufacturer, Ralph Lauren made the uniforms in China where labor is good and cheap. A common practice of U.S. manufacturing -- from textiles to electronics.

Seems to me, the "Made In China" labels on the uniforms are an accurate reflection of American capitalism. I agree that this practice doesn't quite pass the whiff test at the highly visible and symbolic world Olympics. But in the USOC's defense, U.S. Olympic teams receive no government money like their counterparts and must fund America's 2012 presence in London privately.

So why do our elected officials feel the right to exert such influence? Because if Chinese-made U.S. Olympic uniforms don't work symbolically, then they aptly prove that outsourced U.S. goods don't work politically... er... practically. Elected officials have swiftly exploited this egregious high-profile case -- dominating ABC News to Twitter -- to forward political agendas or gain visibility. What else is new, especially in a presidential election year?

While not hypocritical for making the uniforms in China, the USOC and Ralph Lauren are not off the hook yet. The truly heinous feature of our 2012 Olympic uniforms is the appropriation of the world stage - and one of the purest embodiments of American pride - to place the biggest polo pony imaginable on a piece of clothing. (I'm a horse lover and live close to the nation's premier polo field, but still). Who approved this exploitive and overt product placement set atop the hearts of our fittest and most earnest national heroes?

olympic uniforms

The huge proportions of the Ralph Lauren Polo pony logo compared to the patch or sleeve is absurd. Not to mention it dwarfs the American flag and Olympic rings on the other breast, which you rarely see because official uniform photos were taken from the "flattering" side. The mega-pony renders the U.S. ceremonial uniforms overstuffed caricatures of the classic blue blazer. Our American athletes look like Thurston Howell, III of Gilligan's Island meets Captain Corcoran of the H.M.S. Pinafore. As the heretofore custodian of classic prep style, Ralph Lauren has created a Newport, R.I.-masquerading version of the screaming American tourist. (Pity, that the Polo logo, in subtler, style-guided dimensions, could have brought us back to our yachting roots!).

Maybe this is just the American way. We've certainly all become inured to product placement. It's prevalent in entertainment: woven into movies like the Reese's Pieces "character" in 1982's ET and AOL's big "get" in You've Got Mail. It's all over the little screen too, with judges sipping Coca Cola on America Idol and Manolo Blahnik and Absolut Vodka enjoying A-story status on Sex In the City. Product placement has dominated sports for decades - from Virginia Slims sponsoring the 1970 women's tennis circuit to the big painted disposable razor at the Patriots' Gillette Stadium. But the Olympics isn't merely a sporting event; it's a national treasure.

The Olympic Games originated in ancient Greece and served as more peaceful arbiters and placeholders of one city-state's supremacy over another. The Games have endured wars, depressions, famine, and hostage-takings. They symbolize humanity's best and brightest and what each country represents. Who can forget the 1936 Berlin Olympics in which American field and track star Jesse Owens' four gold medals flaunted democracy's preeminence over the growing fascism of the Third Reich? Some 200 nations now strut their stuff, sometimes against all odds.

So it seems the mega-pony on the U.S. uniform represents how we have sold our loftiest commodity -- our national honor -- to corporate branding. (Unless it simply signals the less sinister message that polo is America's new official sport?) The Olympic Committee should have barred such a Titanic-sized logo on our national uniforms. What's next, the 2014 Winter Olympic uniforms sporting NASCAR-like sponsorships?

There's one silver lining in these mega-pony logos -- their location. When our athletes are lucky enough to sing the National Anthem on the awards stand, their right hands will cover the logo for some two minutes. Then we can revert to that conflict-laden Olympic pastime (punctuated by both pride and embarrassment) of trying not to screech the "and the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air" section of "The Star Spangled Banner."

But just when you thought the uniforms were the worst of it, you may find that the assault is not over. As you watch the NBC-broadcast and Coca-Cola-, Acer-, Atos-, Dow-, GE-, McDonald's-, Omega-, Panasonic-, P & G-, Samsung-, and Visa-sponsored 2012 Olympic Games this summer, look closely (especially if you have HDTV) at the American flag as it unfurls and rises above the crowd. Check to see whether one of the stars has been cleverly replaced by a white polo pony.

If it has and you assume it's Ralph Lauren at its product placement best, think again. It could be Hasbro's new Olympic marketing sponsorship for "My Little Pony."