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Friday, September 24, 2021

Explained: How Tokyo Olympics turned the lens on ‘sexualisation of sport’

Athletes are taking a stand against it by wearing unitards instead of leotards, and in one case, tight shorts have replaced bikini bottoms.

Written by Ektaa Malik , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 3, 2021 1:34:40 pm
Sarah Voss, of Germany, performs on the uneven bars during the women's artistic gymnastic qualifications at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 25, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo)

While medal tallies, new world records and spectacular upsets generally dominate the conversation around Olympics, this time, another important topic has repeatedly come into the limelight — the ‘sexualisation of sport’.

The phrase first hit headlines when the German women’s gymnastics team wore unitards as their uniform at the sporting event, instead of the traditionally favoured leotards.

Flipping a new page

The German women’s gymnastics team made headlines with their chosen wardrobe. The four-member team, comprising Sarah Voss, Pauline Schaefer-Betz, Elisabeth Seitz and Kim Bui, wore red and white full-body unitards to the qualifying rounds of the Olympics. The team had a discussion before the event and decided to wear the unitards as a “move that was designed to promote freedom of choice and encourage women to wear what makes them feel comfortable.”

The team had worn unitards to their practices as well. It had also worn the unitard at the European championships in April.

Pauline Schaefer-Betz, of Germany, performs her floor exercise routine during the women’s artistic gymnastic qualifications at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

Leotard vs Unitard

The unitard and leotard are both skin-tight garments usually made of lycra and spandex, their stretchability making them the perfect choice for gymnastics and dance. The unitard worn by the German team is essentially a skintight suit, which covers the athletes’ body right from the ankles to their wrists — a departure from tradition. Women gymnasts for the longest time have worn the bikini-cut leotard, a skin-tight one-piece attire that covers the torso and leaves the thighs bare.

French acrobat Jules Leotard is often credited with the creation of the eponymous attire, worn by women athletes and dancers for more than a century. Male gymnasts, on the other hand, wear body-covering outfits. The Olympic rule book allows athletes to wear full-body suits, but the rare times that an athlete has chosen to opt for it has been because of religious reasons.

Norwegian team fined over outfit choice

The case of the German women’s gymnastic team is not the only costume controversy that made headlines in the sporting world in recent times.

The Norwegian women’s beach handball team, which was competing at the European Beach Handball Championship, decided to shed the usual bikini-bottoms worn for a match for a pair of tight shorts.

The Norwegian women’s beach handball team (Instagram/norwaybeachhandballwomen)

The Norwegian team decided to go with shorts as the bikini-bottom was not suitable for a sport that involves diving in the sand, and additionally, was seen as degrading to women by some. The team was fined 1,500 euros by the European Handball Federation for their decision.

The Norwegian Handball Federation is fully supporting their team and has accepted the fine. Pop star Pink has also offered to pay the fine on behalf of the team.


The decision of the German women’s team has received widespread global support. Celebrated US gymnast and four-times Olympic gold medallist Simone Biles has applauded it, but said she will keep wearing the bikini-cut leotard as it ‘makes her appear taller while competing’.

As a direct outcome of the German team’s stand, the Olympic Broadcasting Services has called for a clampdown on the showcase of “overtly sexualised images of female athletes”.

The International Olympic Committee have refreshed and updated their ‘portrayal guidelines’, and have asked for ‘gender-equal and fair’ broadcasts of their events. The new guide points include suggestions like: “Do not focus unnecessarily on looks, clothing or intimate body parts”; and ‘reframing or deleting a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ … to respect the integrity of the athlete.”

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