How nail art became an Olympic beauty ritual
The nail artist behind the manicure, Emily Gilmour, said the British athlete was “very involved” in the design process. The nails intentionally “celebrated” the Olympics’ host country, she explained over email, adding, “She wanted a nod to Japanese culture.”
Dina Asher-Smith’s Great Wave off Kanegawa nails by Emily Gilmour, seen at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Credit: Andrej Isakovic/ AFP/Getty Images
With every Olympic Games, professional athletes are expected to act as spokespeople for their nations on the global stage. The public scrutiny goes beyond sporting prowess to encompass their social media presence and physical appearance — nail art included.
Over the years, Olympic manicures have become a tournament ritual for some, and a form of soft diplomacy for others, whether that means following Asher-Smith’s lead by honoring the host country or proudly sport gel nail flags in a show of patriotism.
Clemilda Fernandes Silva of Brazil at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Speaking to CNN Style over email from Tokyo, Robinson said the Olympic Village nail salons were incredibly popular. She added, “Sometimes it can be hard to get a reservation for the day.”
A close up of the press-on gel nails Emily Gilmour made for Team GB’s Dina Asher-Smith, inspired by Hokusai’s “Great Wave off Kanegawa.” Credit: Emily Gilmour @emilysmakeupandnails
Since then, nail art appears to have grown in popularity among Olympians. “It’s a way for athletes to express themselves beyond just their performances,” Robinson said,
In the case of Hong Kong Olympic swimmer Camille Cheng, it is also a way of standing out beyond your uniform. “As swimmers, we race in pretty standard caps, goggles and suits,” she said over email from Tokyo. “I feel that getting my nails done adds a bit of my personality.”
The French flag-inspired manicure of shooter Melanie Couzy during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Credit: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images
Cheng’s hand-painted soft gel manicure featured the Olympic rings, the Japanese flag and bauhinia flower that appears on Hong Kong’s flag. Nail artist Nana Chan, from the Hong Kong salon Tinted, also created miniature swimmers battling the waves, which were made up of blue swirls and negative space.
“For this Olympics, I wanted to have Hong Kong represented, Japan (as it’s being hosted in Tokyo), the Olympic Rings and something water or swimming related,” explained Cheng, who also competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics. “We are proud to represent our country on the biggest sporting stage and we reflect that in our nails.”
Tinted founder Carroll Lee, called it an “honor” to work with Cheng, while nail artist Chan said: “It was almost like Camille was bringing my spirit with her to participate at the Olympics.”
Details of another design by Emily Gilmour for Dina Asher-Smith Credit: Emily Gilmour @emilysmakeupandnails
‘Good luck talismans’
“I do believe that nails can be a form of good luck,” Gilmour said. “For me, nails are no different than having a good luck necklace or other form of talisman.”
Camille Cheng’s nails, co-created with Hong Kong nail salon Tinted. Credit: Courtesy Tinted
Making sure the talismans stay in place is another issue, however. For Asher-Smith’s elaborate designs, Gilmour created a set of press-ons “easily applied with nail glue,” as they were best-suited to high intensity sports where “nails may incur pressure.” ManiMe, a company specializing in stick-on gel nails that take just 15 minutes to apply, has also provided similar products to the US women’s rowing team in the recent past, with founder Jooyeon Song saying over email that the athletes “were looking for a nail solution that could withstand their grueling aquatic training schedule.”
For others, like Cheng, manicures have become a “pre-race ritual” and form of self-care amid intense training. “We work hard during the season and for me, the fun part is getting to race,” she said, adding: “I feel that getting my nails done is like a pampering session (and a way to) treat yourself for the hard work.”