Sports Editor Rachel Higgins analyses the pushback from female athletes on outdated uniform regulations and their desire for athleticism to be prioritised over aesthetics

History student at the University of Birmingham. Also national, international and world champion kickboxer. Passionate about women in sport.

Despite the considerable progress that has been made with regard to female representation in sport over the past century, recent news seems to prove there is still a way to go. Debate has sparked over what should be considered appropriate sportswear for female athletes against the culture of tradition, femininity and aesthetics. Importantly, the harsh reality that lies in the objectification of women’s bodies has reared its ugly head again in the example of two notable sports stories last month. The pushback over outdated uniform conventions has begun with full force.

Norwegian Women’s Volleyball Team Fined Over Uniform Choice

During the European Beach Handball Championships in Bulgaria from 13th-18th July, the Norwegian Women’s team was fined for ‘improper clothing’ during their match for the bronze medal against Spain. The fine totalled to 1,500€ which equates to around £1,280 and was decided by the European Handball Federation (EHA) claiming the act of the women wearing shorts instead of the classic bikini bottom design was a violation of the athlete uniform regulations.

These can be clarified through the rulebook reference here, where readers can remark the women must wear bikini bottoms, ‘with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg’. There is even a specific note following the maximum length allowed. As many have commented in unison across social media in retaliation, what is the point in this rule?

Initially the Norwegian team had petitioned to wear shorts at the beginning of the championships, yet the EHA threatened disqualification. In order to make a statement against this incredulous ruling the Norwegian women decided to prioritise comfort over looks during their final match of the series and wore the shorts anyway.

For reference, this is the difference in the men’s regulated uniform compared to the women’s.


The story has received global traction with support from all corners of the world voicing their disgust at the sexist notions of this story. Pop sensation Pink is one such advocate, even saying she would happily pay the fine for the team.

Finally, due to the response the matter of uniforms and potential policy changes will be raised formally at the next EHF Congress held in November of this year.

Olympic Gymnastics Sees German Women Defy Uniform Tradition

Following on from the pushback against draconian volleyball regulations, this year women in Olympic gymnastics have begun to follow the same precedent. The German women’s team have protested against the traditional bikini cut leotards, choosing to wear long legged unitards.

The country’s sport federation, known as Deutscher Turner-Bund (DTB), has said their main aim for the female athletes during the 2020 Olympic games is to avoid sexualization and are doing so by making sure the women are comfortable in their attire.

The gymnastics team also competed in the full-body suits at this years European Championships and have continued this trend in Tokyo. It is important to mention this was not a call for widespread change, rather the introduction of options for female gymnasts, ensuring autonomy over their own bodies and allowing them to feel empowered and safe.

Once again, a notable reference can be seen in the uniforms required for male athletes in this field. The men have always been allowed full length trousers for the bar and pommel horse events, with loose shorts for their floor exercise and vault.

Sarah Voss has explained how the unitard makes her ‘feel amazing’.

German gymnast Sarah Voss is one of the main advocates for this change and has explained in an interview with BBC Radio 5 how the unitard makes her ‘feel amazing’.

Voss made clear of importance of young girls growing up in gymnastics being able to feel safe training, as the traditional uniform does not cover everything. As studies show, many girls with promising futures in sport will quit early on in the stages of puberty due to insecurity surrounding body image.

As the epitome of amateur athleticism and raw talent, the Olympics provides an important platform as audiences from all over watch on. This allows for all manners of prevalent social and cultural issues to be raised within the realm of sport. More than ever, there is work to be done to ensure women feel safe in the environment which they are expected to perform at their best.

A Final Word

It is their pure ability in the respective sport that will carry them through to success, not the lack of clothing covering their body

My main argument comes down to the fact, for both men and women, it is their pure ability in the respective sport that will carry them through to success, not the lack of clothing covering their body. Moreover, if an athlete is comfortable in what they are wearing they are more likely to perform to higher standard as it is one less thing to worry about. The overwhelming support for reforms show that what athletes are wearing should be up to them, within reason. As long as the uniform does not serve to add any kind of unfair advantage to the performance the choice serves no other purpose than to make the sport more comfortable and enjoyable for participants.

To address the other side of the argument, regulating that all athletes wear the same uniform makes sense in the way that everyone should begin at an equal level. However, there is a reason players are allowed to choose what hockey stick brand and tennis racket they wish to play with, everyone feels comfortable with different equipment. The same goes for performance clothing.

Having regulations in place within sport is important to ensure fair games and entries whilst bettering all round organization and management. But yet again, it is the responsibility of these federations to maintain a progressive and inclusive stance in the sport and look to update where necessary.

Women in sport should be credited on their talent alone. Yet as consistent examples show, female athletes continue to struggle to escape this trope of being judged based on attractiveness rather than pure performance and ability. Hopefully progress will continue to be made.

Like this? Check out more from Redbrick Sport:

New Sport Spotlight: Karate

Sky Brown to become youngest ever Team GB Olympian

New Sport Spotlight: Surfing