Los Angeles — For the original Olympians - athletes from city-states all over Greece - dress wasn't an issue. But now the athletes wear clothes. And their uniforms - like flags - are a symbol of a national team's identity. So someone has to decide what the Olympians' attire should be.
To the athletes, parading before a worldwide audience of some 2 billion, it makes a difference. In 1972, the US Winter Olympians paraded in Pilgrim garb, to the general horror of the athletes that had to wear it. For the 1976 Summer Games, Halston-designed uniforms that looked like leisure suits also provoked some howls.
This year, the public will choose the team garb in a kind of commercial election. Levi-Strauss & Co., which is outfitting the US Olympic team and staff, has printed more than 50 million ballots, for voting booths set up in stores that sell Levi's clothing, to decide what the American team will wear for the games' opening and closing ceremonies. (No purchase necessary.)
Voters have three choices: sporty, a warm-up suit and sun visor; western, cowboy hats and boots with jean jackets; or preppy, a blazer and plaid shirt with slacks or skirt.
Some former Olympians, such as Dorothy Franey Langkop, a speed skater in the 1932 games who is still heavily involved with the Olympics, feel that Americans have often been one of the best-dressed teams.
''Our teams always look sharp. They really do,'' she says.
Others feel differently.
''I was always embarrassed, and I haven't seen any real improvement in the meantime,'' says Andrew Strenk, an Olympic swimmer in 1968 and now an Olympic historian at the University of Southern California.
Americans usually look like a poor country in the Olympic procession, says Dr. Strenk, compared to the West Germans or the Swedes. ''Even Czechoslovakia and Hungary are well-dressed and spiffy.''
''It's a real propaganda coup for the Eastern Europeans,'' he jokes. '' 'See, the Americans are starving after all, look at what they're wearing.' ''
In fairness, Olympic athletes are not an easy group to fit.
''We have to come up with an outfit that will look good on a 14-year-old gymnast, a 300-pound weightlifter, and a middle-aged shooter,'' explains Betty Louis, the Levi-Strauss merchandiser directing the project.
Most Olympians, Strenk admits, ''didn't just step out of the pages of Gentleman's Quarterly'' - or out of the pages of Vogue, for that matter.
Levi-Strauss is providing about 30,000 outfits in all. Its polls will be open through September.
The 700 Olympic team members get an opening ceremonies uniform and a set of travel clothes. Then the company will produce the thousands of uniforms for judges, parking attendants, announcers, ticket-takers, and sundry officials.
For the athletes, the uniform figures highly in forging team identity and esprit de corps, notes Mrs. Langkop. ''I definitely want our team to look better than everyone else.''