There were the German gymnasts, performing head-to-toe covers instead of the low-cut leotard at qualifying events for the Tokyo Olympics. A Norwegian beach handball team was also fined for wearing shorts instead of bikinis at a recent tournament. From Europe to Tokyo, protests by female athletes over dress regulations are making noise this summer. And they are just beginning.
Sports uniform regulations are nothing new. They have almost always existed. To ensure the safety of the players; to improve your performance; to make the female body more attractive in the eyes of onlookers.
What has changed is that many athletes are fed up with it.
“Imagine, tomorrow morning, we decide on your clothes. How would you feel? You would say: that doesn’t make sense! So why, if we transpose it to sport, is it acceptable? Asks Guylaine Demers, Co-Director of the Canadian Center for Research on Gender Equity in Sport and Senior Lecturer at Laval University.
Of course, she has her own idea of the answer. Because the world of sport is strong in its traditions. Because the majority of those who run it are still men (women only make up 36% of the members of the International Olympic Committee and 40% of its executive committee). Because at all times the body of the woman has been “scrutinized”, “sexualized”, “commodified”, enumerates.
This summer, the athletes broke the silence about sexism and the objectification of those who feel victims.
Sometimes it has cost them dearly, such as this Norwegian beach handball team that had to pay a fine of 1,500 euros to the European Handball Federation for having changed the mandatory bikini for shorts. A photo of the players posing alongside their male counterparts, with their bellies and thighs exposed on one side and covered on the other, has traveled the web.
Elisabeth Seitz, one of the four German gymnasts (with Sarah Voss, Pauline Schaefer-Betz and Kim Bui) who wore a long jumpsuit in the qualifying trials for the Tokyo Games, also had to explain her choice of clothing. “We wanted to show that all women, all people should be able to decide what to wear,” she told Reuters before her performance. Would you leave your leotard in the closet forever? Would you get it out for the final? No idea, she had said. She would decide on a day-to-day basis, depending on her mood at the time (in the end, Kim Bui, the only qualifier of the German quartet in an individual event, reached the final once again wearing a long jumpsuit).
There it is, the claim, says Guylaine Demers, who is also president of Egale Action, an organization that works to make Quebec’s sports system fair to girls and women.
It’s not about the bikini (or, in this case, the leotard). It’s about autonomy and power of action.
What is at stake is not banning the bikini and imposing shorts, but that athletes can make decisions for themselves, that they can recover their body.
Guylaine Demers, co-director of the Center de recherche canadien sur l’équité des genres en sport, professeure titulaire à l’Université Laval et chairman d’Égale Action, an organization that travaille à rendre le système sportif which is équitable à l’égard des filles et women
Since 2012, for example, beach volleyball players are no longer required to wear bikinis. At the time, the director of communications for the International Volleyball Federation, Richard Baker, justified the decision by saying that it was an attempt to “seduce” countries that do not like the sport for religious or cultural reasons, and not for detach yourself from your sexy sporty image.
This change in the rules had not affected the Olympian and former player Marie-Andrée Lessard, who would not have changed her bikini for anything in the world.
“For me, it really is the most comfortable team. The sand doesn’t accumulate there, I don’t hang onto it. In training, I have never seen a player wear anything other than a bikini, “he told Press, live from Tokyo.
Now that I think about it, the one who retired shortly after her participation in the London Games in 2012, after a 23-year tour, has never witnessed any questioning of the dress rules of her teammates.
The new wave
There have been challenges in the past, but they took place behind locker room doors.
In 2011, the International Badminton Federation tried to force female athletes to wear skirts to “draw crowds”. A year later, it was the turn of the International Amateur Boxing Association to propose it, this time with the aim of “differentiating them from their male counterparts.” Each time, the players have raised the flag and the rules are dead in the bud.
In Quebec we also had struggles in the shadows. When she graduated from college in sports intervention in 2008, Caroline Charland was responsible for developing the regulations for the first school cheerleading league in the Quebec City region. With his team, he worked hard to ban the wearing of sports bras, a regulation that was later adopted across the province by the Fédération de cheerleading du Québec – school division.
We wanted to promote sport and not girls’ bodies. We didn’t want them to have to show their stomach. When playing sports, your uniform should not disturb you.
Caroline Charland, who participated in the development of the regulations for the first school cheerleading league in the Quebec City region in 2008, now responsible for sports at the Cégep de Victoriaville
What we are seeing today, however, are athletes of a new generation, who are speaking more publicly.
“These challenges are just the tip of the iceberg. They will make a snowball. Others will speak, others will break the silence. This is just the beginning, ”believes Suzanne Laberge, a professor at the School of Kinesiology and Human Kinetics at the University of Montreal.
In tune with the times
“The amazing thing is that we are facing an anachronistic movement and quite in keeping with the times,” underlines the sociologist and professor at the University of Ottawa Diane Pacom.
Anachronic, because it is difficult to believe that in 2021 athletes can be punished for refusing to wear a bikini. And in tune with the times, because the movement is led by young women of the #metoo generation, more aware than ever of their image, their power and their place in society.
In the West, athletes are seen as heroes. They have a very important place in our contemporary societies. These young women know it and they said, “Why not use this power to send a message?”
Diane Pacom, Sociologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Ottawa
And they have been heard.
Following the Norwegian squad controversy, the International Olympic Committee made a series of recommendations to broadcasters on the representation of female athletes, including not to “focus unnecessarily on appearance, clothing or games. Intimacy with the body” . Even the American singer P! NK offered to pay the team’s fine.
So are we at a tipping point?
Difficult to say, but surely we will not go back, believe the experts interviewed. The company has chosen its side. “We have reached a level of awareness and expression that deserves to be celebrated,” concludes Diane Pacom.
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