Hotheads wait hours to join the blue berets

Patience, $20 rewarded with head-lining souvenir

Winter Olympics Salt Lake City 2002

February 24, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY - When you've waited in line for 5 1/2 hours to buy a $20 blue piece of fleece polyester, it's hard to find the right word to describe yourself. But Jennifer Crouch seems to have nailed it.

"We're pretty much insane," she said.

Crouch is just one of the thousands who has been caught up in a whole different kind of Olympic fever over the past few weeks. The hottest item in town isn't figure skating or hockey tickets, it's blue U.S.A. 2002 berets made by a Canadian clothing company called Roots.

Many saw the berets during the opening ceremony, when the entire U.S. team wore them while marching into Rice-Eccles Stadium. Since then, it's been tough for fans here to get their hands on one right away. Unless, that is, he or she is willing to put in a minimum of four hours (and sometimes as many as seven or eight) standing in line outside one of the tiny Roots stores a few blocks from the medals plaza.

"It's a pretty exhausting thing to do for something that's just a fad, but we did it," said Robert Torres of Los Angeles, who waited five hours. "I almost just want to give one of mine to somebody because you know somebody's going to wait in line and end up not getting one."

Roots, a Toronto-based company, received a contract from the U.S. Olympic Committee before these games to design all the warm-ups for the U.S. Olympians. The gaudy uniforms the Americans wore four years ago in Nagano, Japan, had been mocked in many quarters, and the feedback from the athletes this time has been far more positive. They have happily sported the light-blue Roots Team U.S.A. vests at news conferences and medal ceremonies.

Roots also outfits Team Canada, and got a tremendous amount of free advertising when pairs figure skaters David Pelletier and Jamie Sale wore the red Roots warm-ups throughout a judging controversy that eventually led to the two being awarded gold medals.

But no one could have predicted the response from the public here, particularly regarding the berets, which are going for more than $100 on the street because the stock sells out so quickly.

"I've been offered $100 for mine by a bunch of different people," said Sharon Newbold, who purchased hers before the games simply because she wanted a warm hat to wear to watch the events. "I kind of wish I'd bought like five of them, because I could have sold them easily."

The company certainly wasn't prepared for the berets' popularity. Roots' clothing plants are working overtime to try and keep up with the demand, but can only ship about 1,000 berets daily to Salt Lake City.

"It always seems like stuff like this brings out the strange in us," said Carol Jensen, who ordered nine berets on-line from Roots.com, but was told she wouldn't get them for at least 25 days.

The two Roots stores here, each of which can fit only 12 customers at a time, open at 10 a.m. and are packed until closing time. Lines begin 150 yards from the stores and move only slightly faster than continental drift.

Earlier this week, customers began arriving as early as 3 a.m. with sleeping bags, camping out to get an early spot in line. Roots employees hand out tickets with numbers on them, ensuring those first in line that there will be berets available when they get to the front.

Those who arrive late must take their chances. Some prospective shoppers bring chairs and pass the time by reading, but most just inch along, introducing themselves to the people around them.

"We've just spent the day chatting up people from Florida, New Mexico, California and Texas," said Pam Groves, a local who had waited four hours in line, but still hadn't reached the store's entrance. "After you spend about two hours in line, you pretty much resign yourself to waiting as long as it takes."

Janae Burrell flew into Salt Lake from Boise, Idaho, just for the day, and ended up spending all of it in line waiting to buy a beret.

"I wanted to take in as much of the Olympics as possible," Burrell said with a rueful smile. "I guess this is what I got."

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