The other day, a friend asked me why we refer to the sleeveless tops in which we often run as “singlets.” A quick informal poll of fellow Fleet Feet employees revealed that we all had a clear and consistent understanding of the running singlet’s important attributes. The key is the width of the shoulder straps. They must be narrow, otherwise you merely have a sleeveless shirt –– fine for running, but it’s not a singlet.
People have been calling this type of sleeveless shirt a “singlet” since at least 1763, when we have the first instance of the word’s published use in Tim Bobbin’s Toy Shop open’d, or his Whimsical Amusements (Manchester, 1763). Logically, in the early eighteenth century, the singlet referred to an unlined waistcoat, as opposed to a lined doublet. By the end of the nineteenth century, it is clear that we would recognize the loose-fitting, sleeveless athletic jersey described by F. T. Bullen in The Log of A Sea-Waif (New York, 1899). Interestingly, although “singlet” had its origins in Britain, it is now more likely that this type of running apparel will be called a “vest” throughout the United Kingdom. Enough with the etymology, what I found truly significant about our “singlet” discussion was the level of general agreement among experienced runners about what constituted a singlet. This got me thinking about running culture and how two famous singlets might help us to think about what running is all about.
First, we have Ron Hill and his famous net vest. A three-time British Olympian, Hill ended his Olympic career with a sixth-place finish in the marathon at the 1972 Munich games. He had previously won the marathon at the 1970 Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh and had also won the Boston Marathon in 1970. There is some speculation that his best of 2:09:28 was probably the world record at the time. After his competitive career came to an end, Hill continued to run. In fact, he hasn’t missed a day since December 1964. He also built a career out of running by entering the running apparel business. In 1970, after having earned a Ph.D. in textile chemistry, Hill started Ron Hill Sports, which pioneered using new technical materials in waterproof jackets and other running gear. He was also an early advocate of reflective strips on running clothing because he was running to work in the dark and wanted to stay safe. His most famous apparel piece was probably the net vest or singlet. Although he sold Ron Hill Sports in the early-1990s, he has recently started Hilly Clothing, which specializes in technical running socks. In his mid-70s, Hill continues to run, develop apparel technology, and serves as an enthusiastic ambassador for the sport. Like Bill Rodgers in the U.S., it is clear from interviews that Ron Hill simply loves running. One suspects he would be doing it even if he hadn’t made it his career.
The second runner that comes to mind when thinking about distinctive singlets is Alberto Salazar. In the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Salazar competed in the marathon in a singlet in which holes had been strategically cut to help with air circulation and cooling. Much was made of Salazar’s trip to the U.S. Army Labs in Natick, Massachusetts, where he underwent tests in a heat chamber to measure his sweat production. I remember that the color commentators went out of their way to reassure viewers that these tests had provided a scientific basis for where Salazar cut the holes; otherwise it merely looked like he had woken up on the morning of the Olympic Marathon and had attacked his Kappa singlet (I’m sure there’s a very interesting story about how they managed to win the contract for the Olympic team’s competition uniforms over Nike.) with a pair of scissors. No one else “self-ventilated” their singlet for the race that day, and this could be yet another example of how Salazar was (and is) always looking for that competitive edge. Some have recently accused him of pushing the boundaries of the “gray area” in pursuing competitive advantages for the athletes that he coaches in the Nike Oregon Project. Regardless of these accusations, it is clear that Salazar represents a “win at all costs” attitude in the running culture. There does, however, seem to be a place for this more competitive attitude. Salazar, has, for instance, introduced runners to underwater treadmills and the AlterG Anti-Gravity Treadmill –– both technologies that have gone on to help everyday runners recover from injuries. Rumors of abusing therapeutic use exemptions, especially with regards to thyroid medication, might signal that there is a limit that can be reached in the relationship between winning and supporting fair sport. The limit of this “gray area” probably deserves it’s own blog post.
Ultimately, you don’t have to wear a singlet to be a runner; but it is important to remember that when you put on a singlet, you are joining a sport that is great because it provides something for everyone. It can become a way-of-life, a hobby, or just something you do several times a week to keep fit. Some runners live to race and are always trying to figure out how to get faster. Others are content to run the same route over and over again as a way to manage daily stress. Some like running through city neighborhoods, while others can’t imagine running anywhere but a trail in the woods. Someone like Ron Hill can pursue the sport for evolving reasons that can sustain a lifetime of running; while others like Alberto Salazar appear to be driven by a constant desire to compete and test themselves. The singlet, however, should remind us that we are all part of the same sport, whatever our motivations.