Female athletes face double standards over uniforms

The Norwegian women’s beach handball team were fined because their shorts were too long, British Paralympian Olivia Breen was told by an official that her briefs were too short and Olympic swimmer Alice Dearing won’t be allowed to wear a swimming cap for natural black hair at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Ahead of the Games, set to start on July 23, female athletes are being scrutinised for their choice of sportswear. FRANCE 24 looks at why athletic uniform regulations for women are so harsh.

The 2021 Tokyo Olympics haven’t even begun and the run-up is already fraught with debate on what female athletes should or shouldn’t wear.

Double Paralympic world champion Olivia Breen is the latest Olympic athlete to be caught in a sartorial storm. After competing in the long jump at the English Championships in Bedford on July 18, an official said her briefs were “too short and inappropriate”.

“She said to me that I should consider wearing shorts because my briefs were too revealing,” Breen told FRANCE 24. “I was so taken by surprise and gobsmacked that I asked her if she was joking. She said no, and insisted I should buy a pair of shorts.”

Writing about the incident in a Twitter post, Breen pointed to a double standard regarding athletic dress codes and questioned whether male athletes would be subjected to the same level of scrutiny.

“I have been wearing the same style sprint briefs for many years,” she said in her post. “I recognise that there needs to be regulations and guidelines in relation to competition kit, but women should not be made to feel self-conscious about what they are wearing when competing, [they] should feel comfortable and at ease.”

The 24-year-old says she was in full compliance with athletic uniform regulations, which allow athletes in her department to wear sponsor gear (the briefs), as long as they also don a club vest or a national kit. Their outfits cannot be “objectionable or see-through”.

“It’s 2021, it’s not the 18th century,” she told FRANCE 24. “I shouldn’t be told what I can and can’t wear.”

Breen filed an official complaint to England Athletics on Monday, but says she hasn’t heard anything back. The young athlete is set to take part in the Tokyo Paralympics this August and intends on wearing the “contentious” briefs. “I’m not letting them stop me from wearing them. I will be wearing them in Tokyo,” she said.

Racist measures and double standards

Breen’s case is in no way singular. Alice Dearing, the first black swimmer ever to represent Team Great Britain at the Tokyo Olympics, will not be allowed to wear the swimming cap made specifically for natural black hair she has been promoting.

Earlier this month, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) banned the use of swimming caps made specifically to protect dreadlocks, afros, weaves, braids and thick curly hair for the 2021 Games. Soul Cap, the company behind the swimming caps, were told by FINA that it was because their product doesn’t fit “the natural form of the head”.

In yet another effort to sanction female athletes for their uniforms, the European Handball Federation (EHF) fined the Norwegian women’s beach handball team 1,500 euros for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms at the Euro 2021 championships. Calling it a case of “improper clothing”, the EHF said players didn’t abide by athlete uniform regulations, which require women to wear bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg” and are determined by the International Handball Federation.

Male beach handball players, on the other hand, are free to wear shorts as long as 10 centimetres above the knee just as long as they aren’t “too baggy”.

The team had approached the EHF before the competition, asking for permission to play in shorts. They were told that any breach of protocol would be met with fines.

Although beach handball isn’t part of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, it’s a stark reminder of the glaring double standards held when athletic uniform regulations are devised.

Who decides?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), the authority in charge of organising the Olympic Games, says it is not responsible for establishing and enforcing uniform regulations. Instead, it’s up to international federations for each individual sport to decide what the appropriate attire for each gender group is.

According to the most recent Olympic Charter published by the IOC, they have the “sole and exclusive authority to prescribe and determine the clothing and uniforms to be worn, and the equipment to be used, by the members of their delegations on the occasion of Olympic Games”.

International sports federations don’t make their criteria for athletic uniform regulations public. FRANCE 24 tried to contact FINA and England Athletics for comment, but received no response.

Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, a professor at the University of Toronto and author of “The Olympic Games: A Critical Approach”, says uniform decisions are based on either “practical considerations related to the demands of the sport”, “traditional roots like the GI for martial arts” or gender differentiation. Some federations also argue that their decisions are purely based on performance, or that they ensure fairness.

But Lenskyj sees clear gender discrimination at play, especially given that many federations are still largely run by men. “Sports judged on aesthetics like figure skating have clothing rules consistent with judges’ often stereotypical views of what a ‘feminine’ skater should look life. Women’s beach volleyball uniform regulations are based solely on heterosexual sex appeal,” she says.

“What’s clear is that a lot of it is commercial,” Janice Forsyth, former director of Western University’s International Center for Olympic Studies in Ontario, told FRANCE 24. “[The international federations] try to appeal to what they think is a heterosexual male audience, try to titillate them into watching women’s sports, arguing that it raises interest thereby making it more lucrative by potentially attracting sponsors and TV contracts or even corporate sponsorships for athletes.”

If motivated, international federations could move quickly to change uniform regulations for women. The fact that they choose not to, according to Forsyth, is purely for marketing reasons.

A little bit of history repeating

Not every Olympic sport is stuck in the “18th century”, as Paralympic star Olivia Breen put it, but many have a history of controversy when it comes to female athletic uniform regulations. Swimming, athletics, badminton, boxing, gymnastics and beach volleyball, for example, have particularly poor track records.

Just before the 2012 London Olympics, the Amateur International Boxing Association tried to make female boxers wear skirts instead of shorts. Their reasoning was that spectators would be able to discern more easily between female and male boxers, as they couldn’t “tell the difference” before.

The suggestion sparked outrage and an online petition started by amateur London-based boxer Elizabeth Plank demanded women be free to choose what they wear in the ring. After garnering more than 57,000 signatures, the decision was amended and female boxers were free to choose between shorts or a skirt.

That same year, the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) changed its dress code. Before the amendment, women players were forced to wear bikinis or bodysuits during games. But public pressure mounted and the FIVB published new rules, allowing women to wear shorts and sleeved tops out of respect for “religious and cultural requirements” of some participating countries.

In 2011, the Badminton World Federation were less forgiving about their uniform requirements. Ahead of the London Olympics the following year, the organisation decided that female athletes playing at an elite level must wear dressers or skirts. They defended their decision saying this would create a more “attractive presentation”.

But recent sartorial debates are just the latest hurdle for female athletes, particularly when it comes to the Olympic Games. Women were barred from joining the games for decades and even subjected to gender testing. And even though the IOC openly promotes inclusivity, female athletes are still subjected to more scrutiny than their male counterparts.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” Forsyth from Western University says. “If we’re just talking about and debating uniforms, imagine what we’re going to find if we dig a little deeper.”

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