Norway’s beach handball bikini row undermines women’s sport

A PROFESSIONAL arena where female participation is mandated on having your bum on display.

No glutes, no gold. Jaw-smackingly, this wasn’t 1975, it was this week. It’s 2021 and beach handball still dictates that women must wear tiny bikini bottoms if they want to take part.

Norway’s women’s team took a stand at the weekend, turning up for an international match in shorts. The insubordination would not stand and the European Handball Federation fined each player 150 euros.

“I don’t see why we can’t play in shorts,” said Martine Welfler, one of the Norwegian players. “With so much body shaming and stuff like that these days, you should be able to wear a little bit more when you play.”

She said women self-exclude from playing at elite levels of the sport because they don’t want to wear the skimpy outfits. 

Men, though, can wear more when they play. Rules state they may don shorts that are “not too baggy” and as long as four inches above the knee. Women’s uniforms mustn’t be more than four inches at the sides and “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg”.

This isn’t a new fight – the Norwegians have been arguing their case since 2006 with no luck. A spokeswoman for the International Handball Federation said there was no known reason for the rules. “We’re looking into it internally,” she said.

It doesn’t take much guesswork to develop a theory. Sexism, anyone? 

Conversely, double Paralympic world champion Olivia Breen was chided for her outfit choice at the English Championships in Bedford last week. To her shock, an official approached her to say her running briefs were “too short and inappropriate”.

It’s the Goldilocks rules of being a woman: clothes are too revealing, clothes are not revealing enough, nothing is ever just right for those who feel they must have an opinion.

Elite sport has strict uniform rules: traditions must be respected, physical needs of each discipline must be catered for. But this debate about female clothing keeps coming up time and time again, while men are free to dress for comfort.

Time-travel back to 2004 and the president of Fifa suggested women’s football would be given a boost with skimpier kit. Tighter shorts, Sepp Blatter suggested. 
“Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so,” he said, with ludicrous optimism.

“And they already have some different rules to men – such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?”

Admittedly, I know next to nothing about football but I’m taking a punt that the line about the extra light ball is … balls. 

In 2011, in preparation for the following year’s Olympics, the Badminton World Federation decided that elite female athletes must wear dresses or skirts to create a more “attractive presentation”. 

Around the same time, the Amateur International Boxing Association similarly decided female boxers should wear skirts instead of shorts. Worried that spectators would have a tough time discerning between the male and female athletes – why does it matter? – they wanted the women in gendered clothing. 

The common thread is that men’s clothing is designed for comfort while women’s clothing is designed both for the aesthetic pleasure of heterosexual men and to keep the women in their place.

It undermines women’s sporting abilities, relentlessly suggesting that men work fantastically hard to achieve peak physical fitness for the perfection of an art form, while women are the art form. They work just as fantastically hard but the product of that work, their bodies, are there to be looked at. 

It reads like a fear of female power. Aggression and strength are admired traits in male athletes, but in women they must be neutered with obviously feminine appearance to make everyone feel more comfortable. 

Looking at a photo of the Norwegian women and Norwegian men lined up side by side, the men covered up and the women barely covered, it’s hard not to think of all the physical admin that goes into being a woman. 

If the governing body doesn’t fancy changing its rules, maybe an admin strike is a good way forward – stop shaving and waxing and plucking for a couple of weeks and they’ll be desperate to bring out the boiler suits. 

Or get the lads into some solidarity budgie smugglers. Mandatory banana hammocks and see how they get on.

This year, 60 per cent of the Scots heading to Tokyo as part of Team GB are female, meaning the majority of our medal hopes are pegged on women. It’s a heartening statistic and speaks to a pay-off in work being carried out to widen participation in sport.

Olympic track medallist Eilidh Doyle gave an interesting interview to BBC Scotland this week, talking about the reasons for the positive increase in female participation.

Social media, she said, has allowed women to take control of their own narratives, but that comes with the negative aspect of pressure from sponsors for sportswomen to gain large numbers of followers.

Objectification comes into play here too. “You need to be a model almost to do this sort of stuff.” Female athletes feel they have to “sell themselves” in order to gain sponsorships.

Former Scotland hockey player Ailsa Wyllie, now head of Sportscotland’s women and girls programmes, was quoted as saying one of the main barriers for girls remains a lack of confidence. 

Participation drops away at secondary school level. 

“Confidence is also married with their body image,” she said. “The changes girls go through at that age have a significant influence on how they feel about themselves.”
Women’s bodies are not their own. As soon as girls hit puberty they are forced to deal with crushing social expectations and objectification, limiting their potential and making simple joys a battle.

The fixation on women’s bodies in sport is a deterrent to girls’ involvement. We should all be Team Norway – gold medals in fighting the patriarchy for them.  

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992