The Olympic Manicure: Why Nail Art Has Gone Mainstream At London 2012

Female athletes have been dabbling with nail art as way of displaying national pride.

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Laura Trott kisses her gold medal after winning the Women's Omnium race during the London 2012 Olympics on Aug. 7, 2012.

It began in the Aquatics Center, the swimmers bending down at the starting blocks, the light from the pool bouncing off their glittering nails. At first it went unnoticed, but as the likes of Missy Franklin and Rebecca Adlington held up their medals for the camera, it was hard to miss. These winners were flying the flag on their fingernails.

Olympic nail art, featuring intricately decorated nail designs of everything from national flags to Olympic rings, can be seen adorning the fingers and toes of many female athletes. Some have opted for freely painted designs; others have gone for the quick and easy nail wrap transfers.

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For those uninitiated in the trend, nail art is very different from the more commonly seen painted nail, which is typically a painted block of color. They are plugging into a trend that traces its orgins to downtown Los Angeles in the 1980s, taking its cue from hip-hop style. Nails became a canvas for any manner of pattern – from graphics to diamante embellishments. The trend crossed into the mainstream as nail bars multiplied across the U.S. and beyond, popularizing elaborate nail fashions and making them easily accessible. Stars such as Lil Kim and Beyonce have also played their part in cementing nail art’s popular appeal.

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It first Olympic exponent was Florence Griffith-Joyner in the late 1980s. Known as Flo-Jo, the American track-and-field Olympic legend boasted three-inch talons that attracted almost as much attention as her speed on the track. As a child growing up in the hardscrabble L.A. neighborhood of Watts, she would  often mix crushed crayons into her mother’s clear polish to create new shades. But not everybody applauded her creativity with her nails. In 1984, she was denied the opportunity to take part in trials for the U.S.sprint-relay team as officials felt the length of her nails would interfere with the baton hand-off.

At London 2012, such worries seem to have been consigned to the past. U.S. volleyball player Destinee Hooker sports long nails featuring stars and stripes. Richard Hall, a spokesman for FIVB, the international body for volleyball and handball, explained: “As far as we can see, if it does not cause harm to team mates and themselves, we have no issue with it! Of course, if it becomes an issue we will look into it.”

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Part of the ubiquity of the craze can be explained by the decision of sponsors P&G- for whom this is their first summer Olympics– to open up four salons catering to athletes and their families during the Games. It teamed up with nail artist Sophy Robson, herself a former hip-hop DJ, who created designs based on each competing nation’s  flag. Their freelance nail artists are painting over 150 sets of guests’ nails a day. 

The evolution of the tools of the nail art trade also help to explain its current appeal. The acrylics of the 80s have given way to gels and foil wraps that offer greater staying power and chip-resistance, so for athletes these are more wearable.

They’re all at it: weightlifters, track and field stars, archers and equestrian riders. Forty-two year-old Belgian Claudia Fassaert, who competed in the dressage last week, displayed a very simple design of blue tips featuring the Belgian flag and the Olympic torch on one nail, all painted by her friend.

Others have gone for more ostentatious designs – British gymnast Lynn Hutchison tweeted a picture of her bright gold digits, detailed with the Great Britain flag, with the words: “got to be golden for #ourgreatest team.”

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Irish swimmer Melanie Nocher, who was sporting a sparkly green on her nails in addition to an Irish flag painted on each thumb, explained that it’s something the athletes have been indulging in in their spare time: “We’ve been doing each others nails. We’ve kind of been on lockdown, so we haven’t had much social time to do this kind of stuff.” Her mother, Muriel, who had also dabbled with some designs, says: “I saw Rebecca Adlington wear them, and I said to Melanie get your nails done! She is quite artistic-she always does something completely crazy when she’s swimming.”

The many rules and regulations on what athletes wear have helped to erase any sense of individuality, but the nail designs seem to be a popular way to inject some personality into the show. And rather than using it as a competitive tool to outdo each other with, the women seem to be enjoying the fact that everyone is taking part, “It’s great to see the flags on everyone – more and more athletes will be doing it now,” says Melanie.

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