Why did athlete shorts spark controversy ahead of the Olympics?

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What triggered this?

Even before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games – the tournament having been delayed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic – a controversy has already erupted over the outfits athletes wear to participate in sports competitions. elite.

The commotion started when two-time British Paralympian World Champion Olivia Breen took to Twitter to express her dismay that a female official told her that the briefs she wore while competing at the Championships English in Bedford on Sunday were “too short and inappropriate.” ”.

Breen, a sprinter and long jump specialist who suffers from cerebral palsy and will compete in the Tokyo Paralympic Games next month, said she was “disappointed” and left “speechless” by the incident, explaining that she had worn the same outfit for nine years. without problem and wondering if a male athlete would have been subjected to the same criticism.

She later said she planned to make a formal complaint and that England Athletics had already contacted her.

“We want to be as light as possible when competing, not having to feel heavy and comfortable. We should just wear what we are allowed to wear, ”she told BBC Radio 4 Woman’s hour this week.

The fury was quickly followed by a separate episode in which the Norwegian women’s handball team were fined £ 1,295 – or £ 130 per player – by the European Handball Federation (EHF) for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms at the European Beach Handball Championships in Bulgaria. , which the governing body regards as “inappropriate clothing”.

“In the bronze medal match against Spain on Sunday, the Norwegian team played with shorts that did not comply with the athlete uniform regulations set out in the IHF Beach Handball Rules of the Game “, said the EHF in a statement.

The Norwegian Handball Federation (NHF) agreed to pay the fine and say they are “very proud” of and support their team.

“They raised their voices and told us enough is enough,” NHF said in a statement. “We will continue to fight to change international dress regulations so that players can play in clothes they are comfortable with.”

What are the rules for clothing at the Olympics?

Although both of these controversies took place far from Tokyo, they could have implications for the Games.

Much of the publicly available information on the dress rules specific to the Olympics relates to its strict guidelines regarding the amount of space allotted for sponsorship messages on competitor jerseys, shorts and socks, or even the micromanagement of the affixing of the logo. a manufacturer on zippers.

But there are a myriad of rules for participants to follow – largely derived from the governing bodies of individual sports – which vary widely depending on the nature of the activities in question, with some regulations emphasizing safety measures and others having more to do with it. see with tradition.

BMX riders making their debut at this year’s games should have their shirts tucked in at all times, for example, to prevent loose fabrics from getting caught in the gears of their bikes, while male figure skaters should wear boots. pants and skirts for women and both avoid “excess nudity” in choosing costumes consistent with the decorum of their discipline.

From more bizarre rules It is expected to be respected at the Olympics, including the odd requirement that boxers be clean-shaven or have limited facial hair, that gymnasts avoid shiny nail polish and V-neck leotards. and that cyclists do not wear long socks.

Leaning the other way towards excessive leniency, track and field competitors are in fact not required to wear shoes if they prefer not to.

Regarding the specific issue of bikini bottoms in handball, the EHF guidelines state that: “Women should wear a bikini, the top of which should be a form-fitting sports bra with deep openings in the arms. The bottom should not exceed ten centimeters on the sides.

Norwegian women’s handball team in offending shorts

(Instagram)

While this week’s incident inevitably (and rightfully) raised questions about sexism in the sport, the EHF rules are in fact just as strict on male players, who are said to be must wear “tight tank tops” and shorts that are “not too loose” and “10 centimeters above the kneecap.”

A clue as to why this might be the case is given by the International Volleyball Federation in its own uniform guidelines, which state that: “Beach volleyball athletes compete on the beach and in an outdoor environment and are required to project a healthy image to the public, media, partners, etc.

“The sun, sand and sea (if applicable) are essential elements to consider when it comes to athlete uniforms. “

So, in addition to honing and demonstrating expert technique and trying to win, participants in some sports are also expected to “project a healthy image” for the benefit of spectators and corporate clients, presumably to add glamor to the advertising. of these.

In a statement commenting on this week’s handball fury, sport organizers revealingly called it a “attractive” game whose ambitions must be encouraged.

If this all sounds a bit of a stretch, it’s hard not to agree with NHF official Kare Geir Lio, who agreed with Olivia Breen when she told AFP this week that the outfit clothing for players “should be a free choice within a standardized framework. frame. The most important thing is to have equipment that athletes are comfortable with.

(Getty)

Norway coach Eskil Berg Andreassen meanwhile argued that such dress requirements could discourage future participants from entering the sport, clearly alluding to women from predominantly Muslim countries.

Why are we asking this now?

Tokyo 2020 has enough trouble without being dragged into rows on athletic shorts like it is.

With a state of emergency declared for the Japanese capital amid rising Covid-19 cases and participants already starting to test positive for respiratory disease inside the Olympic Village, questions remain as to whether if the event should still proceed.

Toshiro Muto, the head of the organizing committee, admitted as late as Tuesday that the sports spectacular could still be called off at the last minute in response to the pandemic if the situation worsened.

“We cannot predict what will happen with the number of coronavirus cases. We will therefore continue discussions if there is a peak in cases, ”he said.

“We have agreed that based on the coronavirus situation, we will reconvene five-party talks. At this point, coronavirus cases may go up or down, so we’ll think about what to do when the situation arises. “

Japanese auto giant Toyota said on Monday it was removing all advertising associated with the competition, as company communications director Jun Nagata commented: “There are many issues with these. Games that are difficult to understand.

Meanwhile, only 22% of the Japanese public approve of the decision to go ahead, according to an Ispos Mori poll, angrily at the rising cost of the event and the potential threat to public health with only 29.3 percent of people vaccinated which prompted 200 demonstrators to gather in front of Shinjuku station in central Tokyo on Sunday to hold up signs reading: “No Olympics”.

“It is to ignore human rights and our right to life,” protester Karoi Todo said told the AP.

“Infections are on the rise. Playing the Olympics is unforgivable.


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