When the U.S. Olympic Team marches in for tonight's opening ceremonies, snowboarders, curlers, and biathletes alike will be wearing matching berets. Not the traditional black felt number, but something called the "Torino Beret," which is available in red, white, or blue. It's an odd sartorial choice, given that the beret has never been associated with America, Italy, or athletic prowess. The old French men who favor berets are creaky; the beatniks, too languid for sport. Mimes, you might argue, share a subset of theatrical hand gestures with ice dancers, but they seldom work up a sweat.
Nevertheless, the beret has become the official headgear of American Olympians. For this we can blame Canada. Roots, a Canadian apparel company, has been outfitting our team since 2002. At that year's Salt Lake City Games, the company introduced the Roots Team U.S.A. Beret, a dowdy fleece hat with a tight-fitting brim and poufy crown. It was neither attractive nor particularly flattering. But it was a hit. After the hat debuted in the opening ceremony, the Roots boutique in Park City took in $10 million. The proprietor of a Utah flower shop called Roots got so many inquiries about the hat that she stopped picking up the phone. All told, Roots sold more than a million of the things.
It is difficult to reconstruct just how Americans came to take part in this madness. It's true that the very sight of a beret can trigger erratic behavior. (Ask Bill Clinton, who was moved to proposition his intern; or Prince, who made out with a girl in a stranger's barn.) Those who've studied the Salt Lake incident conclude that the terrorists are to blame. The 2002 Olympics were the first after 9/11. The opening ceremony, which included a tribute to the victims of the attacks, was a poignant one. The sight of American athletes standing shoulder to shoulder with their international peers was stirring. We would have bought whatever our Olympians were wearing on their heads.
Once the Olympics ended, however, we realized what we'd done. The difficulty with the beret is deciding how to wear it. Do you pull it up at the center (à la Bonnie, of Bonnie and Clyde)? Or do you wear it to the side? If so, which side, and how far over? Men sometimes tilt their berets back, but the effect can be very Che Guevara or very Joe Pantoliano—you have to know your limits. Even the men who serve in our special forces—implacable in the face of gunshots, spiders, and torture—tremble when faced with their first beret. This training manual lists the tools you'll need to break one in (stain guard, razor blade, scissors, seamstress) and common beret-wearing mistakes, such as the "Swiveled Beret," the "Pancake Beret," and the "Giant Forehead."
Confronted with these difficulties, Americans stopped wearing the fleece berets. The hats appeared on eBay (where they're still available). The Daily Utah Chronicle ran a think piece titled "Everyone Who Bought a Roots Beret Was Dumb." The matter, it seemed, was settled.
And yet, Roots keeps tossing berets at us. In Athens, the company issued a Kangol-esque chapeau that sank like a stone. (A Roots spokesman had to cast about for a picture before he could remember what it looked like.) Even so, the beret remained on the roster for 2006. What's remarkable about this new incarnation is that it's even doofier than the first two. Although it's called the "Torino Beret," it does not look like a beret at all; it looks worse. The topper has the appearance of a deflated chef's hat, or a popover that failed to rise. Unfortunate contrast piping emphasizes the way the hat widens at the crown. Modeling the beret in the weeks before the Olympics, speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno looked like a Flemish painter; snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler was smiling, but there was terror in her eyes.
You can't blame Roots for wanting another hit. But our athletes shouldn't have to wear Pop-Tarts on their heads while the company tries to scare up another winner. This year, the Canadian team, which had worked with Roots for years, finally ditched the company, opting instead for a manufacturer that had crafted some lovely shearling trapper hats. If Roots proposes more berets for 2008, it's time we ditch the Canadian hat makers and go for something distinctly American. Coonskin caps all around!