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Tokyo Fashion Week: What (Not) to Wear at the Olympic Games

The Olympic games have returned! Tokyo is in full swing as athletes compete for coveted Olympic titles. Long jumpers, swimmers, divers, shooters; they are all there and all are ready to show the world what they are made of. What a time to be alive! What a time to be an athlete…unless you are a woman of course.

Regrettably, just before the Olympics kicked off, the world was once again shown that the lives of female athletes, and women generally, matter just that little bit less than their male counterparts. Except it is not a little bit, and it is very very annoying.

The news that the European Handball Federation will fine the Norwegian Handball Team €1,500 for wearing “improper clothing” at the European Beach Handball Championships was only mildly surprising to a great many people. After all, it would not be a proper sporting event without governing the clothing choices of women, would it? If anything, the scandalous story of wearing shorts (which is what the male competitors are permitted to wear by the way) is completely believable – which is deeply saddening.

The Norwegian team seemed to understand the responsibility which they had undertaken however, as one of the players, Katinka Haltvik, said that “Handball should be an inclusive sport, not an exclusive one”. While the team maintains that the choice to wear shorts was spontaneous, there is no denying the strength of the statement which was made. The Norwegian sportswear debacle is not the only example of sexism in sport that has hit the headlines recently, however.

The British long-jumper Olivia Breen was told that her sprint briefs were “too short and inappropriate” by a competition official during the English Championships. Taking a strikingly opposite view to the officials judging the Norwegian Beach Handball Team, the officials seemed to take offence to the lack of coverage rather than too much. All of which seems dumbfoundingly ridiculous considering some of the competition wardrobe sported by male athletes. For instance, Tom Daley and Matty Lee recently claimed Olympic gold while diving from a 10m height in trunks which left very little to the imagination. Were their swimming costumes deemed inappropriate? Nope.

A less shocking but equally newsworthy inclusion in the news of controversial sportswear was the use of unitard outfits by the German gymnastics team at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships. The German federation announced that its athletes were taking a stand against the sexualisation in gymnastics and added that this was important for the prevention of sexual abuse. The new outfits were so revolutionary as to include legs in their design. Otherwise, they were identical. A small detail for some, but a life-changer for others.

Correctly sensing the climate of the times, the Tokyo Olympic organisers decided to crack down on sexualisation in sport before this year’s games. The organisers have redefined the rules when it comes to broadcasting the games, making it clear that the focus should be on sport appeal, not sex appeal. This was undoubtedly a welcome change for many athletes, and a step towards redemption for a global sporting event that has a chequered past with equality.

The main takeaway from this series of events is that sexism is alive and well in the sporting profession. The differing and unjustifiable rules for male and female athletes serves as proof that sportswear regulations mainly serve one purpose: to highlight distinctions between men and women. Distinctions which, in most cases, do not exist. Distinctions which, in most cases, sexualise women. The rules are not about fairness, equality, or making the ability to perform sport as easy as possible. They are about outdated and sexist tradition, and they need to be changed.

In most cases, the regulation sportswear for a man can be directly adapted for a woman. Replacing bikini bottoms for shorts clearly did not trouble the Norwegians, for instance. The solutions to these unnecessary problems are obvious. Implementing them would be simple, fairer, and would finally leave sexist standards for women on the side-line.

This should be good enough for the audience too, because performance athletes are not simply entertaining toys for our visual amusement. These people are competitors at the most elite level of their sport. Let’s face it, if you are tuning into the athletics because of the clothing regulations then the chances are you would be better off watching a different channel. If, however, you have tuned in to support the athletes or even just to watch some sport, what they wear should not matter to you. It should not matter to the organisers either. Quite frankly, if competitors wanted to wear joggers, an apron, or lederhosen, if it does not give them an unfair advantage or prove unsafe, why should we care?

There is a world out there where we have shrugged off the burden of sexism. There is a future before us where sexualisation in sport has been left behind. There is a time which we are yet to see where the sexual abuse of athletes has been driven out. The brave athletes mentioned in this article represent just a few of those who are turning this idea into a reality. They will continue and we will get there, 100m at a time if necessary. But those 100m will be run on a track, not a catwalk.


Written by Isaac Knowles


Isaac Knowles is a columnist at DecipherGrey.