With the Tokyo Olympics in full-swing, the conversation over what women in sports are allowed to wear has been reignited.
A Norwegian women’s beach handball team was recently fined for choosing to wear shorts instead of the regulated bikini bottoms.
The women opted for shorts at the championship game against Spain at the European Beach Handball Championship in Bulgaria on July 18.
The European Handball Federation fined the team 150 euros (or around $222 CAD) per player, totalling 1,500 euros ($2,220 CAD) for the team.
Shireen Ahmed, a sports activist who specializes in the intersections of racism and misogyny in sport, said the discrepancy between men and women’s uniforms is a reflection of the lack of gender diversity on sports governing bodies.
“People can say that it needs to be done from a marketing perspective because sports are some of the most watched because their players are sexualized, but now we have players saying we’re done with that,” said Ahmed.
Per International Handball Federation rules, female athletes are required to wear bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg. The side width must be a maximum of 10 centimetres.” Men are permitted to wear longer shorts, as long as they hit 10 centimetres above the kneecap and are not too baggy.
The Norwegian women’s team petitioned the EHF to wear shorts at the European championships but faced a fine or disqualification if it did so outright. The team decided to go with shorts anyway.
“I think one of the things is that the way in which men’s uniforms are not policed and their bodies are not policed tells us that uniform policies are actually not about advantage. They’re specifically to expose as much of the body of the female athlete as possible and men don’t have to endure that at all,” said Ahmed.
This week, singer Pink offered to pay the fine the women’s team incurred.
In a joint statement, the European Handball Federation and the International Handball Federation said the issue with the uniforms was discussed at the EHF Congress in April after being brought forward by the Norwegian Handball Federation, where it was agreed that the conversation would continue in August.
The EHF and IHF said next steps have been agreed on and that “all efforts will be taken in order to further promote the sport. This includes the ideal presentation of the sport and, by that, includes the outfit of the players.”
“From a European perspective, the reaction is based on disinformation on the procedure. The position of the players involved is acknowledged and further steps, in close coordination with the IHF, are in motion,” read the statement.
Problems with dress code for women permeate in sports.
Until 2012, female Olympic beach volleyball players were also required to wear bikinis and recently the German women’s gymnastics team swapped their bikini-cut outfits for full-body unitards at the Tokyo Olympics.
The German Gymnastics Federation described the action as being “against sexualization in gymnastics.”
Pushback was also seen when 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams wore a skin tight, Black Panther-inspired body suit at the 2018 French Open.
Although the suit was worn for health reasons, she was still chastised for breaking the dress code, resulting in the banning of catsuits at games.
Ahmed said although it’s good these recent cases are getting media coverage, issues involving Black and Brown athletes don’t get the same attention.
“I’m absolutely not surprised the way athletes are pushing back and how social media has also played a part in that,” she said.
“What is also really important to note is the way that when the Norwegian beach handball team comes out, it goes viral.”
In late June, British brand Soul Caps, swimming caps designed for natural Black hair, had its application for the Tokyo Olympics denied, the caps deemed unsuitable for not “following the natural form of the head.”
The Switzerland-based governing body FINA, said that to its “best knowledge, the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration.”
Although Ahmed said the current conversation about women’s sports uniforms is a good start, there’s much more work to be done.
“We have to re-evaluate and interrogate the way that these policies are put into place, and how they are created, and I don’t think we can miss the point of who’s creating them,” she said.
“It goes to how people feel about women in sports and women in general.”
With files from the Associated Press and Laura Armstrong
Cheyenne Bholla is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Reach her via email: email@example.com