In the late seventies, the world of men’s running was ruled by New Zealanders. Dick Quax, Rod Dixon, and John Walker were more than just fast runners. They had long hair. They had fun. They were cocky but self-deprecating. On their swashbuckling European tours, they turned out for every race, they always ran aggressively, and if they lost – no problem, they would have a few beers and win the next one. They represented a new, confident New Zealand and an energised, optimistic world.
What truly captured the spirit of the times, though, were their shorts: always black, unadorned with logos, tight and tiny. Today we talk about split shorts; in Rod Dixon’s racing shorts of the late seventies, there was never room for a split.
Those shorts symbolised every kind of progress. As a young child, I read with admiration about the accomplishments of Jack Lovelock and Roger Bannister, but I shook my head at photos of them in their comically long shorts. Long shorts meant extra weight, extra wind resistance, restricted movement. Against the technologically advanced shorts of the seventies, they never stood a chance.
Short shorts represented nascent equality between the sexes. There was nothing, really, to distinguish Rod Dixon’s shorts from Anne Audain’s bloomers.
They were accessible and egalitarian. Forget about paying $200 for an All Blacks jersey. Back then, any six-year-old with a pair of black undies could dash around his back yard winning medals for his country.
Everything, it seemed, was getting better. New Zealand’s men had won Olympic medals and held world records, and we knew that there were more to come. We had been to the moon; surely Mars was next. Men’s running shorts were only going to get shorter. The only way was up.
Then, along came the eighties. Margaret Thatcher and Roger Douglas told us to stop dreaming and be sensible. There were Olympic boycotts and fears of looming nuclear war. Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe took our records and our medals, and their rivalry played out the drama of British class warfare. Running was suddenly heavy, and slowly but surely, the shorts got longer.
It was subtle at first. Cyndi Lauper set the fashion for colourful baggy clothes, and men’s running shorts grew just long enough to carry a large Adidas logo. But then there were fluorescent yellow and green shorts, and shorts designed to flutter in the wind.
When I saw Rod Dixon running road races in a floppy pair of shorts decorated with a New Zealand flag pattern, I knew that everything had changed. Running shorts were now designed to distract from the human body, not to free it. The world and the thigh were in retreat.
The new century arrived not with joy but with trepidation. Terrorists flew planes into the twin towers and we were immersed in another pointless war. Idealism seemed quaint. The only thing to do was hide.
At a local road race, it was once easy to separate the contenders from the joggers. If your shorts reached more than half-way to your knees, then you were not serious; you may as well have turned out in a shirt and tie. Around 2001, for the first time I saw sub-30-minute 10ks run in outfits that Jack Lovelock would have found prudish: big baggy t-shirts and shorts that could hold a whole family. I could only assume that there was a skinny runner tucked somewhere inside.
Over the ensuing years, the fashion in men’s shorts has gone in all directions. On the front row of a starting line today, you will see floppy shorts, straight shorts, compression shorts, split shorts, lined shorts, Gortex shorts, and mid-calf-length tights.
Should we be reassured by the diversity? Perhaps it is emblematic of a pluralistic and tolerant society. Or does it speak instead of divisiveness? In the era of Trump and Brexit, is there anything we still share?
I cannot help observing that the one style of shorts you rarely see on men today is that which took Quax, Walker, and Dixon to the top of the world. What counts as short now did not count as short then.
Lululemon advertises its running shorts by promising that they will “control your junk”. The voice of the late seventies bellows down through the decades: “It is not junk! It does not wish to be controlled!” The world does not need to be so complicated.
One day, I believe, the trouble will pass. Optimism and confidence will emerge again, and other things will re-emerge too. The world will be getting better. The shorts will get shorter. We will rise again.