Clothes don’t make the athlete. Yet, there is nary an Olympics that goes by without commentary or controversy over what the best female athletes in the world are wearing — or, rather, not wearing. This year, however, the issue of uniform inequality seems to be gaining purchase with the media and sport-loving public.
The disparity is greatest in such sports as beach volleyball, gymnastics and track and field, where many female athletes compete in bikinis, high-cut leotards and scant, tight-fitting tunics. Compare this with the knee-length shorts and full-coverage tanks worn by their male counterparts, and the sexualization of women in sport becomes glaringly obvious.
The International Olympic Committee has attempted to address the issue in recent years. Ahead of Tokyo 2020, the IOC released an updated set of portrayal guidelines for broadcasters, aimed at improving gender-equality and inclusive representation at the games — a tagline of which is "sport appeal, not sex appeal."
The head of Olympic broadcasting, Yiannis Exarchos, told CBC News earlier this week that "We in media have not done all that we can do" when it comes to showing sexualized images of female athletes. This is the second such handbook released since 2018; directives include focusing on the athleticism of female athletes instead of looks and avoiding use of video that lingers on intimate body parts.
These guidelines are steps in the right direction and a rebuttal to the age-old argument that viewership will drop if female athletes compete in something other than a glorified bathing suit. Back in 2011, the Badminton World Federation tried (and failed) to make female players wear skirts to "ensure attractive presentation in badminton."
While the IOC doesn’t dictate competition attire — those rules are made by individual sport federations — the summer games have provided a global stage for conversations about the baked-in sexism of athletic wear and the policing of female bodies.
The German women’s gymnastics team made headlines last week for wearing ankle-length unitards, as opposed to high-cut leotards. The outfits were billed as a stand against sexualization in the sport and a bid to prioritize athlete comfort over aesthetic ideals.
Outside of the Olympics, the Norweigian women’s beach handball team was fined for wearing athletic shorts instead of bikini bottoms. The mandated uniforms are similar to those commonly seen in beach volleyball.
On the other end of the spectrum, U.K. paralympian Olivia Breen was chided by an official who deemed her sprint briefs were "too short" at a recent track meet. "We shouldn’t be told what we can’t wear and what we can wear," Breen said in response.
When it comes to outdated uniform rules, it seems female athletes can’t win.
Dress codes also unfairly target athletes of colour. In the lead-up to Tokyo, the International Swimming Federation banned the use of a swim cap designed for Black swimmers. And it wasn’t until the 2016 Rio Olympics that the International Volleyball Federation amended its rules to allow players to wear a hijab.
If sport is truly about competition, athleticism and hard work, athletes of every gender and nationality should be allowed to break records and inspire others while wearing whatever they see fit.
Women have been allowed to compete in the Olympics for 121 years and have been participating in sport for much longer. But they are still not afforded the same respect and bodily autonomy as their male counterparts by the media, spectators and athletic organizations. Despite the revealing attire, female athletes are still not seen as equal competitors.
Here’s hoping the strides made over the last few months continue pushing the conversation forward long after the podiums had been packed away.