Wrestling Singlet Debate – A Photographer’s Perspective

The debate around wrestling uniform has been going on in this country for the last 100+ years. Mark Palmer wrote a nice piece for Intermat on the history of the wrestling uniform in the US. This issue around the singlet is not new to our sport and it makes sense given the complexities of pairing a uniform to a hand-to-hand combat sport through the changing social mores and styles in a rapidly evolving country. As a photographer I’ve been reading the articles and comments with great interest, particularly Mark’s and Matt Krumrie’s USAW article. There’s also a NY Times piece on the subject. I also read Tim Foley’s weekly piece on Intermat and he’s unabashedly anti-singlet. I wanted to give my perspective as a long time wrestler, fan and photographer. I’m not overtly locked into the singlet for nostalgic reasons, my perspective comes from 1) trying to suss out the noise from actionable ideas, and 2) as a leading photographer of the sport I want the best photographs possible and a uniform change will impact my work. I feel there may be a need to parse some of the rhetoric as well, because as informative as the articles and dialog have been, I feel strongly that we’re conflating several issues into one, namely: Barrier to entry and senior level aesthetic.

Barrier to Entry
The argument here is that the vast majority of coaches agree more youth wrestlers would participate in the sport if we eliminate the singlet. Obviously the more young athletes we get into the room, the better for the longevity of our sport, so my initial reaction was to suggest we immediately change the rules so kids can wear shorts and a t-shirt through middle school. I’m not even talking about compression gear, but good old fashioned nylon shorts and cotton t. But that change doesn’t necessarily mean we need to change from a singlet to shorts and a t-shirt at the senior level. That’s the conflation I was referring to above, a barrier to entry issue is wholly different from changing the uniform at the senior level to conform to what main stream society (or marketing departments) would like to see us wear.

A change at the youth level is something that could happen overnight and it would help eliminate the fear associated with the singlet if that’s truly why kids don’t want to come in the door, or stay in the room. One argument about any garment change is the associated cost of updating club and school uniforms, and that’s a real concern, so why not let kids wear (just about) any shorts and a t-shirt now and club/school teams can update their stock as time and money allows?

One comment to the Intermat article stuck out to me, NickM writes: “I never talk about singlets or anything pertaining to our uniform. The kids that do not stick with it, would not stick around if they wore fight shorts and a compression shirt! Not everybody is attracted to our sport, we have all said it! So now we are convinced that a uniform change will bring in thousands of new prospects? Maybe, but we will still have retention problems, weight cutting problems, burn out, and the “over top dad/coach.” It’s a good point, and I admit counter to what  LOT of coaches see in their room, but the bigger point is, can we solve all of/many of/any of our problems with a uniform change? It could help at the youth level, I think that’s pretty well accepted, but beyond that…?

I know a LOT of coaches talk about the singlet being a barrier to entry, but the reality is that kids may very well not want to wear compression gear either. I suspect the line is very blurry when it comes to kids’ aversions to lycra or compression gear. Even if we did go with a two-piece uniform, the heavy weight kid is still going to look big in compression gear. If kids don’t want to wear a singlet, we shouldn’t force them to. Let’s go with shorts and t-shirt, compression gear, or a singlet. Options are fine. Alternatives are okay in my book.

Jerseys?
Mr. Krumrie made a suggestion that we need jerseys, I think everyone is still scratching their head over this. He wrote: “I know in the four major professional sports, the jerseys sell like hot cakes,” says August Manz is a coach with the COBRA Optimists Wrestling Club of Council Bluffs, Iowa. “If kids or adults are wearing a Kyle Snyder replica jersey or uniform in public it can be a walking advertisement for the sport of wrestling and that wrestler. This can help get the common person interested in the sport of wrestling.” I honestly don’t know if this is a suggestion that Kyle Snyder should wrestle in a jerseys? If so, what kind of jersey? That’s definitely an out of the box perspective.

If what they are suggesting is a hockey or basketball type jersey for causal wear with a wrestler’s name on it, that’s a question for the marketing divisions of the main wrestling gear manufactures. If someone wants to sell a Kyle Snyder “basketball” jersey, they can do that, but that discussion has nothing to do with the singlet vs compression gear debate, at least not beyond spitballing marketing ideas for the sport (which we need to do, but not in the same story).

My Agenda (As a Photographer)

SEMIFINALS (Click to see all 98 photos)

2016 NCAAs – Megaludis vs Terao

Honestly, my biggest concern as a photographer is the look of the athletes. I’m concerned that the more we cover up the athlete the more it will have a negative effect on photos. This may sound weird, but at the college and senior levels I (and most of you) like seeing shoulder and leg muscles. I fear that if we put more clothes on the athletes, then cover that with sponsor logos, it will take way from the photos and overall look of the athlete. That’s the meat of why I’m writing this post. I’m afraid that what I’ve seen in test events so far do not have an aesthetic appeal to me. I know I’m just one voice, but I am concerned about the look of our sport and have invested a lot of time and money in representing our look around the world.

The Embarrassment Factor
It would be disingenuous of me as a photographer to say I don’t have to deal with embarrassing “bulges” or “unseemly exposure” and other non-mentionable gear issues. It happens, sometimes it’s unavoidable, but we’re humans in a combat sport. I take this very seriously, because the product I put out represents the sport to the world. But I don’t think the solution is just adding more material to the overall garment, especially if we’re adding material on the upper body as we’ve seen in the test events. If this is about covering up awkward bulges, maybe we can turn to the manufactures and see what they can come up with? Or maybe we can get over it, we have body parts, we shouldn’t cow to the people who are ashamed of the human form in action?

I will say that dye-sublimation* printing of singlets, cool as it might look, has had a substantially negative effect on singlet “bulge” since areas of the singlet are more pronounced when the material is stretched.

Almost all of the singlets at the Olympics worked great, I did not have many embarrassing issues to contend with in any style. I suspect the countries paid for super high-quality singlets, and there was no need for dye-sub printing.

Going Mainstream

Tim Foley once wrote: “”Ridiculous as you think it seems, there are wide swaths of humanity who cannot get past the awkwardness of two men in tight singlets rolling around with each other. Call them small-minded, moan till you’re miserable, but you are never going to overcome the association between singlet wrestling and negative sexual connotations until the outfits are less revealing in the crotch.”

But to take this a step further, and as NickM points out above, even if we wore shorts and a t-shirt (or compression gear), we would still be a fringe sport for the simple fact that it’s two men/women rolling around with each other regardless of whether the crotch is revealed or not. I don’t need to stress this since every wrestler at some point has had to defend the sport from sophomoric remarks.

86KG BRONZE: J'den Michael Tbory COX (USA) df. Reineris SALAS PEREZ (CUB) by withdrawal, 3-1

This photo of J’Den Cox will not look as dynamic with a compression top and shorts.

The question is, what are our goals to become mainstream, and do we really need to make an equipment adjustment to get there? Perhaps.

It’s really hard to say what we would need to do to be accepted mainstream. MMA blew past us from a viewership perspective, and the interesting thing is that they wear shorts and no top. Maybe Foley is right, all we need to do is cover the crotch? Then again, they can also knock each other out, and the average fan only needs to know that possible outcome for MMA to be played on every bar (and restaurant) TV on Friday and Saturday night. Our sport is nuanced, it’s hard to officiate, it’s hard to lock in rule sets. There are myriad reasons why we’re still on the fringe, the outfit being the most obvious reason to ridicule us, but that doesn’t mean we should jump to change it for those who are not truly interested in our long-term success.

All that said I have had a laugh that maybe this issue is only really an “issue” right here in the VERY body-conscious and body-conservative USA. Our country is funny, on one hand sex sells, sexuality is everywhere, yet if the body revealed is not absolutely formed to the standards of perfection, we’re ashamed by it. We’re ashamed if a heavyweight carrying a little extra in the gut. We’re ashamed if we see a wrestler’s bulge, but not so much if it’s our favorite action hero.

From the Times article: “”When you look at basketball and football, whenever they make changes to their uniforms, it’s for the purpose of television,” he said. “We are a visual generation now. Wrestling needs television, and in order for television to accept wrestling, they need to change that look.” So, this is about moms and dads not watching wrestling because we reveal to much skin? And if we put shorts on, the numbers of new, casual fans will skyrocket? Wrestling will finally go mainstream? I’m dubious, but curious.

Honest question: Is this an issue outside the US? I’ve heard from a few folks that say no, it’s not, but I’d like to know if singlets are debated in other areas of the world.

Marketability
It can’t be overlooked that this push to compression gear is possibly being driven by marketing as well. More material, big logos, that could all be a real thing. I’m not willing to rock the boat by calling this out more than just mentioning it. It’s a real part of the conversation to noodle on.

Recent Changes

I saw the Edinboro two piece uniforms the other day, and honestly they look like a singlet with the shoulders covered, in fact the design made them look exactly like a singlet over a t-shirt. Maybe this is the revolution we’ve been hearing about?
edinborotwopiece

I saw the Flo Who’s#1 event, and like a lot of folks, it looks to me like the wrestlers are in practice gear (that’s my own hang-up), and the shorts were so large that the athletes rolled them up. I’m sure those issues can be fine tuned. I just don’t like the look of the photos over a singlet.

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Other Styles of Wrestling (and their uniforms)
At this point, you can stop reading, I’ve made my case and shared my thoughts. But I wanted to include some interesting examples of wrestling disciplines that have long histories and very unique uniforms.

Another honest question: are there forums for these sports where people are up in arms about the uniform? Or are they embraced?

Tim Foley is a much better authority on these styles than I am, but the point is, they have long traditions and their gear has been shaped over millennia. I don’t know if they are still trying to fine tune them?

Sumo
You don’t need to look any further than sumo to find an ancient wrestling style that hasn’t changed their gear in thousands of years. And they pack stadiums!
sumo_033 sumo_038

Turkish Oil Wrestling (Turkish: Yağlı güreş)
The Turks have a traditional style of wrestling where they put on thick canvas pants and douse themselves in olive oil before scrapping. Strange to us, but they embrace it!
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Mongolian wrestling (Bökh)
I love these guys! They have the best outfits to wrestle in. I bet they do not spend days on forums debating if the zodog should cover their entire chest again (I could be wrong). Also, they have the sickest names for their outfit, maybe that’s the solution, instead of singlet, we should call it a “crushtava” and instead of headgear we call it a “skullzodog”.

From Wikipedia:
The outfit of the wrestler has been developed over the ages to reflect simplicity and mobility. The standard gear of a wrestler includes:

Zodog: A tight, collarless, heavy-duty short-sleeved jacket of red or blue color. Traditionally made of wool, modern wrestlers have changed to lighter materials such as cotton and silk. It is fastened at the back with a simple knotted string, and the front is cut away, leaving the wrestler’s chest exposed. According to legend, on one occasion a wrestler defeated all other combatants and ripped open the zodog to reveal her breasts, showing to all she was a woman. From that day, the zodog had to reveal the wrestler’s chest.

Shuudag: mall, tight-fitting briefs made of red or blue colored cotton cloth. These make the wrestler more mobile. Also, they prevent one’s rival from easily taking advantage of long pants or to avoid material to trip upon.

Gutal: Leather boots, either in traditional style (with slightly upturned toes), or commercial, Western style. The traditional style gutal are often reinforced around the sides with leather strings for the purpose of wrestling.

Inner Mongolian wrestlers may also wear a jangga, a necklace decorated with strands of colorful silk ribbons. It is awarded to those who have gained considerable renown through contests.

Tim once posted photos of kids in these uniforms, I have wondered if a kid show up because he didn’t want to wear the uniform, or if it was considered an honor and the entire family was blessed to have a child wearing the uniform?

p1110038 foley8 foleytim3

 

Kushti
Ancient Persian wrestling taken up by Indian wrestlers. They compete in dirt, they totally embrace dirt in fact. And thongs. And that’s awesome!

Photo: SMITA SHARMA FOR OZY

Photo: SMITA SHARMA FOR OZY

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Photo: Wikipedia

 

* ‘Dye-sub’ is a printing technique that allows for full color, all-over apparel prints. Your artwork is printed onto a sheet of high-release paper and transferred onto your apparel using heat and pressure. Heat converts the solid dye particles into a gas (sublimation) and bonds them to the polyester fibers. 100% polyester garments are required for optimal vibrancy. 50% polyester/50% cotton blends are good for achieving a vintage/worn effect. This process requires white or very light colored garments, since any colored background drastically alters the imprint colors. Since sublimation will become part of the shirt, any color already on the garment will overwhelm the transferred image.