The women competing at the 2021 Summer Olympics — taking place in Tokyo until Aug. 8 — are the top athletes in the world; yet, it's the fact that they're women athletes that often ends up in the spotlight, especially when it comes to what they are or aren't wearing. While not entirely shocking given the world's history of sexist double standards, not just in sports, but in most professional areas, the gratuitous rules about women's uniforms are due for a change.
It's an open secret that Olympic standards are skewed against sexist (and racist) lines. Just weeks before the games were set to start this year, swim caps designed for natural Black hair were banned. According to the International Swimming Federation, the caps didn't fit "the natural form of the head." Erin Adams, a former Division I swimmer, told the New York Times that the the cap was especially helpful for Black women, who "usually have more hair." The decision to ban the caps, therefore, was simply another means of controlling Black women's clothing, bodies, and hair. "They're just trying to make it difficult for us to have ease when participating."
Unfortunately, the regulation doesn't stop at the Olympics.
The stipulations placed on female athletes often veer into irrational and glaringly sexist territory, particularly in the case of Canadian tennis champion Eugenie Bouchard. In 2015, Bouchard was flagged by an umpire for violating Wimbledon's all white dress code after accidentally showing a black bra strap (not even the whole bra) underneath her white gear.
Prior to the Olympics this summer, the Norwegian women's beach handball team was fined for refusing to play the game in bikini bottoms during the Euro 2021 tournament. Players wore thigh-length elastic shorts during their match against Spain to protest the standard regulated bikini bottom. (Men wear loose-fitting thigh-length shorts.) The team was fined roughly $1,700 USD for "improper clothing" according to a statement from the European Handball Association's Disciplinary Commission.
The musician Pink has offered to pay their fines and tweeted, "I'm VERY proud of the Norwegian female beach handball team FOR PROTESTING THE VERY SEXIST RULES ABOUT THEIR 'uniform'. The European handball federation SHOULD BE FINED FOR SEXISM. Good on ya, ladies. I'll be happy to pay your fines for you. Keep it up."
Earlier in July, double Paralympic world champion Olivia Breen spoke out after an official at the English Championships told her that her briefs were "too short and inappropriate." Breen said that she was "speechless" and the comment hurt more coming from another woman. She later said that she will be making a formal complaint, stating, "[The officials] have no right to say what I can and can't wear."
The irrational regulation of women's clothing has a particularly long and dark history in the world of professional sports going back 20 years. Soccer legend and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brandi Chastain was crucified by the press in 1999 when she tore off her shirt in celebration of a game winning penalty kick against China at the World Cup. At the time, many critics called her reaction "inappropriate" despite male players often doing the same thing.
And three years ago, Serena Williams' catsuit was banned at the French Open. According to the Associated Press, the French Tennis Federation President specifically called out Williams' outfit, saying, "It will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place." The idea that Williams, one of the most accomplished tennis players of all time, disrespected the sport for wearing what she felt most confident in (not to mention, what was most comfortable following the difficult delivery of her daughter, Olympia, just months earlier) is a direct example of how deep rooted misogyny runs in sports.
It's bad enough that women already face double standards in just about every aspect of professional sports, but during this Olympics, some female athletes are taking a public stance against sexist conditions.
The German women's gymnastics team have chosen to reject the standard bikini cut unitards in favor of full-body versions. "It's about what feels comfortable," German gymnast Elisabeth Seitz said according to CNN. "We wanted to show that every woman, everybody, should decide what to wear." The suit, unlike the traditional bikini cut, covers the legs to the ankles.
The German Gymnastics Federation also said the outfits are a statement against "sexualization in gymnastics."
While fashion most certainly isn't the main focus of the Olympic games, it's undeniable that it has a major role to play, whether it be in the actual scoring or the reception of the players. To acknowledge this, Olympic participants — from the International Olympic Committee to the audience at home — must recognize how outdated and unfair clothing regulations have been for women who reach this level.
If anything, this year's games have shown how fashion can be empowering for the world's top athletes — provided that they have a say in how much they want or don't want to reveal.
This year's Olympic skate costumes, designed by Nike, have been praised for their out-of-the-box designs and cut options (including a tank, a v-neck, or polo T-shirt), bringing much needed joy to the games after such a heavy year and a half. Additionally, this year's Opening Ceremonies featured beloved looks from all countries, unifying the players in unique ways to the nations they are representing.
Ultimately, it should be up to the athlete to decide what they are most comfortable in while performing. If the Olympics want to set a positive example for their world wide audience, letting women dress in what makes them feel best — while competing at the highest level of professional sports — is the first step for the future of Olympics culture.
Anything short of just that further disappointment.