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In the debate over sports uniforms, have we finally hit bikini bottom?

From handball to gymnastics, some Olympians are pushing back against revealing outfits, benefiting from efforts to give athletes more agency

A women’s beach volleyball match at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Japan’s Miki Ishii, right, attempts to block a shot by Margareta Kozuch of Germany during a women’s beach volleyball match at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, July 26, 2021. Most of the women playing beach volleyball at the Olympics wear bikinis as their uniform, but it’s not required.
Petros Giannakouris, Associated Press

When the bikini was introduced in Paris in 1946, the swimsuit was considered so scandalous that the designer couldn’t find a model who would wear it.

Instead, he hired a striptease dancer from a casino for the bikini’s debut.

Seventy-five years later, the style is ubiquitous at the world’s beaches and pools, and has also become a uniform in athletic competitions, to include beach volleyball and handball. Long-distance runners also compete in bikini-style briefs.

But some athletes are pushing back on the bikini and other revealing competition outfits in efforts that have been called revolutionary. While their efforts are, in part, a response to heightened awareness about objectification of women’s bodies and sexual misconduct exposed in the #MeToo movement, they also benefit from a growing push for athletes’ agency over their careers.

The Norwegian women’s beach handball team recently defied its governing body’s rules by showing up for a competition in shorts. Although men’s teams are allowed to wear shorts, the women’s team was fined 1,500 euros for violating the rules of the International Handball Association, which says women must wear bikini-style bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg.”

The Norwegian women’s beach handball team is pictured wearing shorts rather than bikini bottoms — a move that earned them a fine from the European Handball Federation.
Norwegian Handball Federation

Similarly, three German gymnasts recently competed in uniforms that covered their legs, saying the traditional leotard sexualizes the sport.

The women were applauded worldwide for drawing attention to a double standard that exists in many sports, where women are expected to show more of their bodies than men, even as they fight against sexual harassment in their private lives and in the workplace. Pop singer Pink even offered to pay any fines levied on the Norwegian handball players, tweeting “Good on ya, ladies.”

In the century-old debate over what athletes should wear, have we finally hit bikini bottom? Here’s what the history of women’s sporting attire suggests, and why the founder of one women’s athletic wear company says we should think about uniforms as equipment, rather than clothes.

A biblical millstone?

In her scholarly paper “‘Girls who arouse dangerous passions’: Women and bathing 1900-39,” British historian Catherine Horwood examined the challenges that women at the turn of the 20th century faced when it came to swimming in public.

Men and women swam and bathed separately then, and many women and children did not even know how to swim, hindered in part by the swimming “costumes” of the time, which added weight to the swimmer, sometimes dangerously so. In one of the most catastrophic boating accidents in American history, more than 1,000 people died in 1904 when the PS Slocum caught fire and sank in the East River in New York. Most of the dead were women and children who could not swim, leading to public calls for more swimming instruction for women.

About the same time, an Australian swimmer named Annette Kellerman was advocating for modernized attire for women swimmers. Bathing suits at the time were basically nautical-themed dresses, with pantaloons and skirts covering women’s legs. A one-piece swimsuit that Kellerman popularized was considered both scandalous and revolutionary (although her story of having been arrested at a Boston beach for indecency has never been confirmed and is now believed to not be true).

The Kellerman suit, which was similar to men’s bathing costumes at the time, was form-fitting, exposed the arms and much of the leg. In her 1918 book “How to Swim,” Kellerman explained why: “Water is 700 times as heavy as air, and to attempt to drag loose-flowing cloth garments of any sort through water is like having the biblical millstone around one’s neck.”

The same could be said of many other types of athletic endeavors, to include track and field competitions, handball and beach volleyball. This is why, as rapidly as cultural mores allowed, athletic outfits have become ever skimpier and more formfitting.

Ariane Machin, a sport psychologist at North Carolina State University and a former collegiate athlete, said she vividly remembers when, in high school around 1994, her volleyball team switched from baggy shorts to spandex shorts. She remembers laughing about it at the time, saying, “Whoa, that’s wild.”

Then in college, her cross-country team was told the women runners would be wearing bikini bottoms instead of athletic shorts. She doesn’t know who made the decision or why, and said some of the runners left their long track pants on until the moment it was time to compete. But if the goal was improved performance, the change didn’t work, at least not for Machin.

“I had my best times in baggy shorts,” she said.

Respect for the game

Strangely, even as the bikini made inroads into other sports, competitive swimmers have stuck with the one-piece bathing suit, which has rarely been controversial except for its length and material. Full-body polyurethane swimsuits have been banned from international competitions because it’s believed that they give swimmers wearing them an unfair advantage, Morgan Brinlee reported in Bustle.

Other controversy over competitive attire has had more to do with propriety and departures from norms, particularly in tennis. In 1949, Gertrude Moran was accused of bringing “vulgarity and sin” into tennis when she wore a dress at Wimbledon that revealed lacy shorts underneath as she ran. The resulting publicity packed the stands, according to Douglas Perry, writing for The Oregonian. Moran was dubbed “Gorgeous Gussie” and became more famous for her style than her considerable athletic ability.

Gertrude Augusta Moran of Santa Monica, Calif., races across the court during her women’s singles match against Betty Wilford, at Wimbledon, London, on June 22, 1949. Moran won the match 6-1, 6-4.
Robert Rider-Rider, Associated Press

But it’s not just bare skin that causes controversy. More recently, another American tennis star, Serena Williams, was criticized for wearing a form-fitting, full-length catsuit at the 2018 French Open, leading the French Tennis Association to ban the look. “One must respect the game and the place,” association President Bernard Giudicelli said.

Three months later, at the U.S. Open, Williams competed in a one-sleeved leotard, a black tulle tutu and fishnet tights.

No sport, it seems, is exempt from the debate over how much a uniform should cover or reveal — from softball, with the debate over shorts versus pants, to wrestling, where critics say the traditional form-fitting singlet has discouraged teens from taking up the sport. (Looser fitting garments have been seen as a safety hazard for wrestlers, although a rule change in 2017 allowed high school wrestlers to wear two-piece uniforms.)

But Missy Park, founder and CEO of Title Nine, a women’s athletic wear company, said the no debate would be necessary if more designers and governing bodies would see athletic attire as a form of equipment, not fashion.

“If you’re diving on the sand or on the gym floor, you’re going to get floor burn, sand rash, whatever, if you’re wearing a bikini. It’s just not functional. More than saying what they shouldn’t be, let’s say what these uniforms should be.” Park said Title Nine customers buy sports bras to perform a certain function, as all sportswear should.

“We don’t need to have any discussion about whether it’s sexy or not sexy. We just need the dad-gummed thing to work.”

‘This isn’t OK with me’

The athletes’ protests come as Olympic officials have vowed to present “gender-equal and fair” broadcasts that do not focus on the looks, clothing or body parts of athletes, according to the New York Post.

“You will not see in our coverage some things that we have been seeing in the past, with details and close-ups on parts of the body,” Yiannis Exarchos, chief executive of Olympic Broadcasting Services, said earlier this week. “What we can do is to make sure that our coverage does not highlight or feature in any particular way what people are wearing.”

What’s happening now with athletes and outfits, however, isn’t so much about cultural mores, but about athlete agency, said Elizabeth Daniels, associate professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

From the recent NCAA change that allows college athletes to make money, to Olympic gymnast Simone Biles being applauded for withdrawing from competition for her mental health, athletes are being given more control over their careers — and their bodies — than in decades past, when they were controlled by their coaches and organizations, Daniels said. Pushback against prescribed uniforms is part of that.

“I don’t know who makes these decisions on uniforms. From my perspective, athletes being involved in the decision making would be really reasonable, and I would suspect that they are not involved,” she said.

“We are at a moment when athletes are speaking out and advocating for themselves, telling the world what they need. This might be another opportunity for sports federations to incorporate more voices of athletes, to consider some of these policies that have persisted for some time without examination, and to make some changes in light of the social changes we have seen in the last several years.”

She noted the difference between Biles pulling out from competition this week, and Kerri Strug’s gold-winning, painful performance in Atlanta in 1996. (Strug, then 18, had to be carried onto the podium by her coach.)

“This is a unique time where we are seeing athletes speaking out on important issues. The uniform thing is, in some ways, mundane, but it’s really about athlete agency, athletes being able to say ‘this isn’t OK with me.’”

Similarly, Park with Title Nine, said that people are newly cognizant of double standards in compensation for women athletes, in addition to the clothing they wear. (Title Nine announced this week that the company is donating $1 million to help close the pay gap between the United States’ women’s soccer team and the men’s.)

“Fashion can come and go, but sports (clothing) should be based on the function,” Park said. “I don’t know what the function of wearing little swimsuit bottoms are if you are the Norwegian handball team. And if you think women who are playing the exact same sport that men are need different uniforms, we’re going in the wrong direction.”