The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are well underway after being postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic – and while the Games are only a year behind, you might be forgiven for thinking professional sport is stuck in a far more severe time warp.
In the month building up to the world’s most anticipated sporting event, female athletes have drawn attention to numerous incidents they say left them feeling shamed or sexualized.
Double Paralympic world champion Olivia Breen said this month she was left “speechless” when an official at the English Championships told her that her sprint briefs were “too short and inappropriate.”
“It’s just wrong – we’re not living in the 18th century, we’re living in 2021,” Breen said in an interview via video chat. “For me personally, I want to be as light as possible so I can jump out, run faster.” In a statement posted to Twitter, Breen questioned whether a male competitor would be similarly criticized. The female official’s comment, “really shocks me and makes me really cross,” Breen wrote. “I just thought, that needs to change.”
Breen told CNN she planned to make an official complaint. The incident not only angered her, it was also concerning, she said, as behavior like that could put women and girls off sport.
“For a girl with low confidence or low self esteem, it may make them feel rubbish.”
A confusing double standard
Experiences like Breen’s are nothing new for female athletes, who regularly find themselves rebuked for wearing too little – or too much – clothing.
Just this month, Norway’s women’s beach handball team was fined 1,500 euros ($1,766) for “improper clothing” after players opted to wear shorts instead of bikini briefs during a European championship game in Bulgaria.
According to International Handball Federation (IHF) regulations, female athletes must wear bikini bottoms with a maximum side width of 10 centimeters (3.9 inches), a “close fit” and “cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg” – though the dress code allows male athletes to wear shorts that are “not too baggy” and 10 centimeters above the kneecap.
“We have no idea why those rules are as they are,” said Julie Aspelund Berg, a defender with Norway’s beach handball team, during a phone call. “Why can’t we just wear shorts (when) we can manage the job just as good as in bikinis?”
Berg explained that her team knew they would be fined, but preferred to compete in shorts instead of bikini bottoms because the bikinis can ride up and leave them feeling exposed.
“With those bikinis, we were all the time checking if it’s in the right place. We were focusing on other things than the sport – and that’s not something we want,” she said.
“We just want to be treated at the same level as the guys.”
The incident quickly gained worldwide attention, and even caught the attention of singer Pink, who offered to pay the team’s fines, and said European Handball Federation (EHF) should be fined for sexism.
Following worldwide backlash, the EHF and the IHF later confirmed the topic of female uniforms would be discussed by the newly elected Beach Handball Commission in August.
The incident is just another example of the “conflicting messages” women are faced with, said Stephanie Hilborne, CEO of Women in Sport, during a phone interview. “Wear less, wear more. It’s a bit like the tight rope that women are forced to walk through a lot of aspects of life.”
A long history of different rules
Women have long struggled for the right to participate in sports – and to gain recognition solely for their achievements.
“Women’s sport only ever gets the same representation as men’s sport during the Olympics, and I think Wimbledon is probably the only other time it happens,” Michael Hobson, a lecturer in physical and sports education at St Mary’s University, said via video call.
While the first modern Olympic Games took place in 1896, women weren’t allowed to participate until 1900, when, of a total of 997 athletes, only 22 women competed in five sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrianism and golf.
English tennis player Charlotte Cooper became the first woman in history to win an Olympic gold medal at the games, while wearing a full-length dress.
Women competing in sports like lawn tennis in the 19th century “wore corsets and big skirts, which obviously didn’t allow very good movement,” Michelle Flemons, a senior lecturer in physical education sport and youth development at St Mary’s University said via video call. Dress codes were “trying to hit that balance between their femininity and their athleticism. So, basically then after they finished playing tennis, they could still find husbands,” she said, referencing the research of Rachael Jefferson-Buchanan.
Hilborne said the only rules for what should be worn in competitions today “should be driven by fairness,” citing swimsuits as an example.
In 2009, the international governing body of swimming, FINA, decided to ban polyurethane-based swimsuits – dubbed “doping on a hanger” by their critics – from competitive swimming. The performance-enhancing, non-textile swimsuits caused controversy after a series of world records were set by swimmers wearing them. A the time, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps threatened to withdraw until the suits were banned.
A ‘degrading’ conversation
“Time and time again, when women perform, what they’re wearing becomes part of the conversation. Almost as much as the performance, which is degrading,” Hobson said.
Numerous studies have been done on tennis tournaments, like Wimbledon, investigating how often female clothing was commented on. Conversely, “Male clothing is never commented upon,” he added.
Officials are making efforts to push back against sexualized or stereotypical representations of female athletes. In it’s updated “Portrayal Guidelines,” the the International Olympic Committee instructs broadcasters not to “focus unnecessarily on looks” like make-up, hair, nails, clothing or “intimate body parts” like “crotch shots, cleavage, backsides” “especially if it does not relate to an athlete’s performance.”
“Athleticism and sporting prowess should be the focus of the imagery” the IOC said.
Still, the German women’s gymnastics team recently made headlines for choosing to forgo bikini-cut leotards in favor of full-body versions at the Tokyo Olympics, in what the German Gymnastics Federation branded a statement against “sexualization.”
The full-body uniforms, which the team wore in their qualifications at the Games last weekend, provide full coverage of the athletes’ legs, in contrast to the high-cut leotards worn by many other female gymnasts at the Olympics.
“It’s about what feels comfortable,” German gymnast Elisabeth Seitz said. “We wanted to show that every woman, everybody, should decide what to wear.”
According to Hobson, when it comes to media representation, “there’s these two sort of overtly oppressive views of women: one which is overly sexualized and the other one is overly concerned with modesty.”
He pointed to a famous 2016 image of Egyptian and German beach volleyball players at the Rio Olympics, presented by some outlets as a “clash of cultures.”
According to the Daily Mail, pictures of the sport “famed for its revealing attire” showed “the contrasting cultures among some of the nations taking part.”
“It was seen as the West versus Islamic culture – almost a sort of sexualization versus modesty,” Hobson said.
Rules reinforce exclusion and discrimination
Rules, regulations and media commentary surrounding athletes’ apparel can sometimes reenforce racial discrimination.
The International Swimming Federation (FINA) this month attracted heavy criticism after Soul Cap, a UK-based brand, announced that the governing body for aquatic sports refused to approve the caps designed for swimmers with natural Black hair in international competitions, including the Olympics.
“For younger swimmers, feeling included and seeing yourself in a sport at a young age is crucial,” Soul Cap founders said in a statement shared on the company’s Instagram page. “FINA’s recent dismissal could discourage many younger athletes from pursuing the sport as they progress through local, county and national competitive swimming.”
The Black Swimming Association (BSA) said it was “extremely disappointed” by FINA’s decision, adding that it “confirms the lack of diversity in elite swimming and the lack of urgency for change.”
In a letter to presidents of the IOC and World Athletics, the Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup of the European Parliament said that FINA’s effective banning of the Soul Cap at international tournaments “reflects stigmatization of Black hair and leads to institutional inequalities, especially targeting Black women.”
Though FINA said it is now “reviewing” its decision not to allow the use of the swimming caps at the Tokyo Olympics following backlash, barriers for Black athletes are not confined to one sport.
“Sport is a microcosm of society and so in many ways, it reflects many of the attitudes, many of the cultural practices, many of the ideologies and “isms” of racism, sexism, the “phobias” of homophobia, xenophobia, really coming to the fore in these spaces,” said Akilah Carter-Francique, executive director at the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change, during a phone interview.
“We see it manifest in the representation of our athletes, we see it come to fore in the policies, or the practices that happen within the sport.”
According to Fiona May, a retired field and track athlete who has won two Olympic silver medals and two World Championships, Black female athletes: “are portrayed in a certain way,” often characterized as aggressive, and have their appearances scrutinized.
“I’ve seen it. I’ve been through it,” she said over the phone, “It discourages you.”
May, who is on the advisory panel of Sporting Equals, an organization that promotes ethnic diversity across sport, said that as a Black athlete, you have to “be the best, not only 100% but also 120%”
Continuing, she said, “that’s a bit tiring, psychologically, because you already have to think about being the best in the world, and training.”
Fighting for the next generation
Fighting for better uniform standards and norms is not just about kicking back at sexualization and sexism.
Berg said Norway’s beach handball team were concerned that the existing uniform regulations might deter some women whose religious beliefs require more modest attire.
“We want to include everyone. With this clothing we are actually not doing that. We were not including all women, just because of their religion, and then not allowed to actually [to participate] with such small bikinis or that little clothing,” she said.
Though high-level events are a forum for the world’s best athletes, experts say the way that athletes are – or are not – represented can have a huge impact on youth participation in sports.
“It’s not just at the Olympic level, it trickles down. If I don’t see myself on the screen, or my cultural traditions or family morals are not respected in these spaces, parents will not place their children in these spaces,” Carter-Francique said.
Lipa Nessa, trustee for the Muslimah Sports Association said that Muslim women face many barriers to sports participation.
“When I started to play football, prior to 2014, I couldn’t compete because wearing a headscarf wasn’t allowed,” she said, adding that a “huge chunk” of Muslim women didn’t play the sport as the result of a 2007 ban on headscarves by football’s world governing body.
FIFA officially sanctioned the wearing of religious headscarves in 2014.
It is encouraging to see big governing bodies taking a stand and amending their rules, Nessa said, adding that other bodies and brands have started to follow suit – the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) changed its rules to allow players to wear religious head coverings during games in 2017.
“Big brands, sports brands have been showcasing inclusivity for a couple of years now, with sports hijabs or burkinis, head-to-toe swimwear and other modest sportswear. If they can do it, then what’s stopping everyone else?”
According to Hilborne, “women should be the ones setting the rules and involved in the design” and a diverse group of women at that. “Otherwise, you’re just going to keep getting it wrong,” she said.
She added that the top jobs in sports are still “totally dominated” by men.
“They set the culture of the sport. In the public gaze and in the media and around the Olympics – it does affect the way that girls and women look at whether they should take part in sport.
“It’s not just having some women at the top, it’s having women in the critical jobs at the top of sport, so that they can be truly influential and shift the culture. Or we’re just gonna have to keep fighting these battles, which is a complete distraction from the incredible things that women are achieving in sport,” Hilborne said.
The good news, said May, is that there’s a growing awareness of the issues that previous generations have faced.
“I find it much better now, much much better because this new generation of women of all color, they’ve seen what we’ve been through,” May said.
She sees how her daughter, long jumper Larissa Iapichino watched how her mother was treated, and as a result “doesn’t take any flak from anybody whatsoever, in all senses.
“I think we gave them a bit of strength to say: ‘Right, this is happening. This happened to my mom, but it’s not going happen to me.’
“But there’s still a long way to go.”
This article was updated to include mention of research by Rachael Jefferson-Buchanan.