Since it was revealed the Ralph Lauren-designed opening ceremony uniforms for the US Olympic team were made in China, a member of Congress has openly suggested burning them, a move some outraged Americans immediately endorsed — it didn't take long for a "Burn the New USA Olympic Uniforms" Facebook page to pop up, naturally.
According to one estimate, USOC's outsourcing of Team USA's apparel manufacturing to China cost the U.S. about $1 billion. While others have come to the Team USA's defense of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and Team USA, the Christian Science Monitor argued against corporate panhandling altogether. "While China is harvesting farm 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, which prides itself on being an All-American brand, is smarting from the outcry. Its namesake founder has vowed that the brand will produce the 2014 Winter Olympics Team USA apparel in the U.S., according to a statement released Friday that was backed up by USOC:
For more than 45 years Ralph Lauren has built a brand that embodies the best of American quality and design rooted in the rich heritage of our country. We are honored to continue our longstanding relationship with the United States Olympic Committee in the 2014 Olympic Games by serving as an Official Outfitter of the US Olympic and Paralympic teams. Ralph Lauren promises to lead the conversation within our industry and our government addressing the issue of increasing manufacturing in the United States and has committed to producing the Opening and Closing ceremony Team USA uniforms in the United States that will be worn for the 2014 Olympic Games.
Another result of the "scandal" (which has made headlines in China) is that it has sparked the kind of honest debate about "made in China" that all the hullaballoo over Apple and Foxconn never managed.
New York-based brand Hickey Freeman, recognizing an opportunity to undermine Team Lauren, cheekily announced that it could completely remake Team USA's uniforms in time for the London 2012 opening on July 27th, prompting Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to state, "The Olympic Committee ought to do what Harry Reid said, take the existing suits, put them in a big pile and burn them, hire Hickey Freeman… They’ll do a great job and our athletes will be proud to wear the red, white and blue, made in America, made in Rochester." This also suggests a new event London 2012: "3,500-meter Rhetoric."
And where does this debate end? Should Olympic medalist marathoner Mebrahtom "Meb" Keflezighi be allowed to compete for Team USA despite being born Eritrean? And for goodness sake, nobody tell U.S. politicians that all of the flags used at the Olympics are made in China.
As we noted last week, if there is a national team that really has something to be outraged about, it is China. The nation's entire team is sponsored by Nike, a USA-based brand. This despite the nation being home to Li-Ning, China's most famous athletic brand, and other choices such as up and coming sportswear brand Peak could easily also outfit the Chinese Olympic delegation.
Sure, Nike's Team China uniforms (printed in English!) may also be made in China, but when millions (hopefully) of Chinese patriotically buy official (hopefully) merchandise of their teams' jerseys or the official shoe, below, that will be profiting Nike. Just as when patriotic Americans buy licensed Team USA navy blazers at near $800 a pop, the bulk of that will profit USA brand Ralph Lauren.
When Botswana National Olympic Committee chose Nike to design as its London 2012 Olympics outfitter, it did so over both Botswana's own athletic brand All Kasi and a Chinese competitor.
So, which would you rather own, the intellectual property, or the simple means of production?
Yes, it would be best if team uniforms were produced in the country they're representing, so Team USA uniforms would be manufactured in the U.S. as it appears will be the case going forward. But the incident should open a debate that makes Americans proud. While the raw material itself may not be made in the USA, the design, creative ideas and innovation — that will be represented by prominent brands on both Americans and the athletes they compete against — are absolutely made in the USA.
Summing up this reality — with gusto — is Cato Institute Herbest A. Steifel Center for Trade Policy Studies Director Dan Ikenson:
"...consider this: As our U.S. athletes march around the track at London’s Olympic stadium wearing their Chinese-made uniforms and waving their Chinese-made American flags, the Chinese athletes will have arrived in London by U.S.-made aircraft, been trained on U.S.-designed and -engineered equipment, wearing U.S.-designed and -engineered footwear, having perfected their skills using U.S.-created technology."
If Schumer, Reid, Boehner and all of the other politicians outraged want to take meaningful action with regard to the "made in China" Olympic scandal, they should put away the kerosene and lighters and make sure the USA-based companies pay their share of the taxes on the profits they rake in from replica uniform sales.
Now, the question is, will America's "made in China" outrage spill into other product categories — Google hopes so! — or will the nation be characteristically short memoried?
Image of China's official Olympic basketball team shoe via Sneakerfiles.