Why 'Made in China' is gold for US Olympic team

Ralph Lauren's line of clothes for the US Olympic team was made in China, which has some members of Congress furious. It put the US Olympic Committee in a tough spot. 

Ralph Lauren/REUTERS
US Olympic athletes rower Giuseppe Lanzone (l.) and swimmer Ryan Lochte are pictured wearing the 2012 US Olympic team uniforms, made by Ralph Lauren. REUTERS/

If there is one good thing to come out of this controversy over where the US Olympic uniforms are made, it is this: That, just for an afternoon, we all got to imagine Senate majority leader Harry Reid in a wrestling singlet. 

Yes, that glorious image was provided by none other than the silver-haired and bespectacled majority leader himself, who was apoplectic upon learning that the US Olympic team's uniforms were made in China. He suggested that the team should be clothed with "made in the USA" garb, even if that meant wearing raggedy singlets painted with "USA." 

Now, roughly half the NBC viewing demographic would probably have no qualms about seeing Ryan Lochte wearing a singlet of any sort. And we would have had no qualms if Senator Reid had focused his fire on those silly berets Ralph Lauren insists upon Americans wearing during opening ceremonies. 

But if we're really trying to bring the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) into the "outsourcer in chief" argument here, let's make something plain. 

The USOC probably cares a whole lot more about what Ralph Lauren says than what Harry Reid says, and the reason is simple. Ralph Lauren gives it money and clothes. Congress gives it bupkis.

In the end, Reid and the other members of Congress who cried foul got what they wanted: Ralph Lauren said future US Olympic uniforms will be made in the US. But the ruckus put the USOC uncomfortably in the middle of a fight that it surely did not want. 

The quite remarkable thing about America's medal success in the Summer and Winter Olympics is that, unlike China or Russia or Great Britain or Germany – basically every top Olympic nation on earth – the USOC gets no money from the government. While China is harvesting farms girls from remote provinces to be canoeists, gymnasts, and weightlifters – training them in state-owned facilities and paying top dollar to lure top coaches – the USOC is panhandling on the doorstep of corporate America. 

Ralph Lauren? NBC? Visa? McDonalds? They are the lifeblood of American Olympic success because they pay to be associated with the brand. Reid's office probably isn't even on the USOC's speed dial.

The USOC was suitably calm in responding to the uproar, but surely what it wanted to say was: If you want American-made uniforms, Mr. Reid, we'd be happy to have you pay for them. 

In fact, reading between the lines, that is precisely what it did say.

"Unlike most Olympic teams around the world, the US Olympic Team is privately funded and we're grateful for the support of our sponsors," USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said in a statement. "We're proud of our partnership with Ralph Lauren, an iconic American company, and excited to watch America's finest athletes compete at the upcoming Games in London."

Then, as if that wasn't enough, Mr. Sandusky added: Ralph Lauren "financially supports our team. An American company that supports American athletes."

Translation: "Show me the money."

Should the USOC have insisted upon Ralph Lauren making its Olympic clothes in the US? That's hard to say. Surely, the Olympic brand gives the USOC some bargaining power, but in the end, it's the USOC who needs Ralph Lauren more than the reverse. And this is hardly new. The outfitter for US team gear during the ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Games – which were on American soil, no less – was the Canadian company Roots. 

Perhaps it's not surprising that Reid, a former boxer, came out swinging at Olympics time. Maybe he just got the old tang of the gym in his nose. Or perhaps he really wants the entire US team to wear singlets. 

But his comments, as well as those from other members of Congress, threatened to cast the US Olympic movement as a villain at a time when it is achieving something extraordinary – maintaining Olympic excellence without burdening taxpayers.

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