Why are some women still wearing skimpy uniforms at Olympics?

·5 min read

TOKYO – Women’s beach volleyball players are recommended to have their names on their bikini bottoms but, since space is limited, it’s not compulsory.

Women’s beach handball athletes are required to wear bikini bottoms with a maximum side width of 10 centimeters – smaller than the size of an iPhone.

And in gymnastics, women are allowed to wear a unitard but it “must be of elegant design” and the neckline “must be proper.”

For all the Olympics do to highlight the success of female athletes, each cycle they spotlight the vestiges of sexism baked into the sports – and frequently athletes’ uniforms.

“If there was any kind of advantage to having little fabric, the men would be wearing them too,” said Charlene Weaving, professor and chair of human kinetics department at St. Francis Xavier University in Canada. “If there was any kind of biomechanical advantage, then men would be in Speedos. But they’re not.

“Why can’t it just be performance wear? Those rules impact how we view women athletes and how they view themselves. And it just becomes so entrenched in the culture of the sport that athletes don’t even fully understand what’s happening.”

Americans Alix Klineman, left, and April Ross say they they prefer the smaller bikinis when competing in beach volleyball.
Americans Alix Klineman, left, and April Ross say they they prefer the smaller bikinis when competing in beach volleyball.

Though it isn’t a Olympic sport, beach handball has helped highlight the ways international sport federations sexualize female athletes in stark contrast with men.

Earlier this month, the Norwegian beach handball team decided to wear shorts rather than bikini bottoms in the bronze medal game of the European Beach Volleyball Championship. The European Handball Federation fined the team for refusing to wear skimpier uniforms.

International Handball Federation (IHF) rules require women to wear bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg” and a maximum side width of 10 centimeters.

In a statement issued after the Norwegian players reported the fines, the IHF said it would take all efforts to promote the sport and added that “this includes the ideal presentation of the sport and, by that, includes the outfit of the players.”

Spokeswoman Jessica Rockstroh said the International Handball Federation drew upon ideas from other sports – specifically beach volleyball and track and field – in creating its uniform rules.

“We would like to emphasize that we are aware of the global discussion surrounding these uniforms and appreciate any feedback from the community,” Rockstroh said.

As it does every Summer Games, that discussion involves beach volleyball, where the world’s best female players predominantly wear cheek-bearing bottoms despite International Volleyball Federation allowing shorts and other longer options.

Weaving said since its inclusion starting in 1996, beach volleyball has emphasized a beach party culture. The women’s bikini uniforms play into that, while the men wear shorts and a tank top.

Top U.S. duo April Ross and Alix Klineman said they prefer the smaller bikinis and could have worn shorts if they had chosen to.

“For me personally, I think everyone should be able to wear what they’re comfortable in,” Ross said. “I think for us, this is what feels the most comfortable. Sometimes wearing more clothing in really hot weather, getting sand stuck in places is not fun.”

Added Klineman, “It’s not the most practical. But I totally respect other people wanting to be more covered if that’s how they feel most comfortable.”

In gymnastics, the German women competed in what they feel most comfortable in – a unitard. Eschewing the standard bikini-length leotards, the team opted for a one-piece uniform that went to their ankles to push back against sexualization in sport.

The Germans first wore them at European Championships in April.

“We want to feel amazing, we want to show everyone that we look amazing,” Germany’s Sarah Voss told the Associated Press.

American Simone Biles said she feels more comfortable in a leotard.

“I'm very short, so I feel like it might shorten me,” she said after nationals in June, “but I stand with their decision to wear whatever they please and whatever makes them feel comfortable.”

What athletes are allowed to wear falls to each international federation, and most have little difference between men’s and women’s uniforms. But Weaving pointed to the International Olympic Committee and the influence it holds.

The IOC has touted these Games as the most gender neutral, with almost 49% female athletes. This week, it published a second edition of portrayal guidelines, focusing on how its own media and others covering the Games depict female athletes at a time when they receive the most attention.

It offers guidance on terminology to use and avoid and how to address long-standing imbalances in coverages of men’s versus women’s sports. In the section on sports imagery, it says media should “avoid passive, sexy imagery” of athletes.

But Weaving sees it as misdirection away from sport federations that sexualize athletes through uniform requirements.

“I think that’s pretty rich because they’re the ones overseeing these federations who are creating these rules that are perpetuating this culture of sexualization,” Weaving said. “So then they’re blaming the media, but they’re the ones who created the machine.”

Elsewhere in the Olympic program, female athletes have avoided that kind of sexualization.

In skateboarding, the American women traded in their uniforms and asked for men’s sizes. They competed in their sport’s debut here in pants and t-shirts, attire that best enabled their performance.

“It’s just normal for us. Skateboarding is not really like that,” said American skateboarder Mariah Duran. “I don’t feel like a girl or a boy when I step on a board. At that point, I’m just a skater.”

If female athletes keep pushing, others might get the chance to avoid being sexualized and just be an Olympian.

Contributing: Sandy Hooper, Alex Ptachick

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021 Olympics: Why are some women still wearing skimpy uniforms