Why are female athletes still being criticised for what they wear in 2021?

  • Marie Claire is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission on some of the items you choose to buy.
  • As the Norway women's beach handball team are fined for not competing in bikini bottoms, we ask: why are female Olympians required to wear less clothing than their male counterparts?

    The Tokyo Olympics are officially off to a flying start – and, alongside the news of national hero Tom Daley finally bagging his first ever gold medal, is a whole roster of impressive female wins, too.

    Team USA’s Carissa Moore became the first ever female surfing Olympic champion this morning as team GB also nabbed their first women’s team medal in 93 years.

    The Norway women’s beach handball team also made headlines across the world as they were hit with a fine of £1,300 for competing in shorts rather than bikini bottoms. The European Handball Federation, who gave the fine, said their kit was ‘improper’ and ‘not according to the Athlete Uniform Regulations defined in the IHF beach handball rules of the game’.

    Sadly, this isn’t the first incident during Tokyo’s Summer Olympic Games to shine a light on sexist and archaic kit rules that put female athletes at a disadvantage.

    Despite the handball teams shorts being too long, two-time Paralympic world champ Olivia Breen was scrutinised on Sunday by an official who said her shorts were ‘too revealing’, and swimmer Alice Dearing told that a swimming cap to fit her afro hair isn’t acceptable as athletes ‘don’t require caps of such size’.

    This year, more female athletes are competing at the Olympic Games than ever before. In total, around 49% of those competing are women. So, question: why, in 2021, are women being penalised for what they wear?

    The dated – and sometimes even unofficial – Olympic dress code traditions are putting women at a huge and noticeable disadvantage. An official committee decides on the necessary kit for each sport, however it’s believed that vague and unclear phrasing makes knowing what kit is acceptable difficult to establish.

    The rules vary vastly from gender to gender, and you rarely see male teams being scrutinised for their kit choices. Take the men’s handball team, for example – the International Governing Federation states that men are allowed to compete in shorts. Yet, the rule for women’s team remains clear: they must compete in ‘close fit’ bikini bottoms, side width of no more than 10cm.

    The hypocrisy and double standards are clear – and must be challenged.

    Pop singer P!nk has backed the Norweigan team, offering to cover the cost of their fines and sharing on Twitter:

    This isn’t a new debate. Back in 2011, female boxers were asked by officials to wear skirts to compete in the London Games for reasons that remain unclear. So why, in the ten years since said games, has nothing changed?

    Critics have called the incidents a ‘policing of certain bodies’, with Breen herself sharing with Sky News: “I’ve had lots of messages from young girls that this happened to them. This can’t happen again … I think it’s really wrong.”

    Making sport a more inclusive place place is essential, and Olympic officials should pay attention to companies like Nike and Adidas launching sport hijabs and independent brands such as SoulCap designing the necessary kit for all athletes to compete.

    The International Swimming Federation (FINA) banning caps for afro hair only highlights how outdated most of the regulations are. One Twitter user said, ‘How is natural Black hair not the ‘natural form of the head?”, with another adding ‘I just cannot fathom how any intelligent person sees this as anything but discrimination. Smh…’.

    This has to change. Why, in 2021, are black female Olympians not allowed to wear caps that adequately cover their hair? And why are female Olympians required to wear less clothing than their male counterparts that could leave them feeling vulnerable or sexualised?

    Olympic officials must do better, and we have a responsibility to make sure they do. The repercussions of such strict regulations for female athletes are wider reaching than you might think. Stats show that young girls, in particular, won’t participate in group sports if they feel self-conscious.

    A paper published by Victoria University found that 88% of women asked about athletic uniforms would rather wear shorts for sport, and 90% would opt for t-shirts over a more revealing option. 

    While the Norway team decided to break regulation to kickstart a discussion about the contradicting dress code regulations between men and women, Breen’s kit was actually in full compliance with official regulations – which further highlights that even when women do comply, they’re called out.

    So, start the conversations. Educate yourself. Share your opinion. And help us move towards a world where outdated, sexist and uncultured kit regulations don’t hold female athletes back from their full potential.

    Reading now