Can Europe Make It?

Bikinis or shorts – not always an obvious choice

What Norwegian papers dubbed ‘the panty crisis’ finds an odd counterpart in a beach volleyball attire row, where athletes were fighting for, not against, wearing a bikini

Irene Peroni
19 August 2021, 2.22pm
Warm-up for an international beach handball tournament, June, 2021.
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Alan Dent/ Alamy. All rights reserved.

Being fined for ‘improper clothing’ after choosing to wear shorts rather than skimpy bikini bottoms, might seem perverse.

Norway’s female beach volley team, who lost the bronze medal match against Spain at the recent European Beach Handball Championships in Bulgaria, are tired of having to don revealing bikini bottoms at tournaments.

They tried to have the regulations changed ahead of the event, but to no avail.

When the team offered to pay the fines ahead of the games, in order to play in thigh-length tights, they were reportedly told they could incur unspecified measures, which they feared might entail being disqualified, according to Norwegian state TV channel, NRK.

So they dropped their protest. But in their final game, they went ahead and entered the pitch with the shorts they use for warming up, which they consider their uniform of choice.

They will now have to pay the disciplinary commission €1,500 for disobeying its ruling. And the ruling is quite specific.

The International Handball Federation regulations even specify that bikini bottoms must have “a close fit and (be) cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg. The side width must be of a maximum of 10 cm”.

It is hard to claim that such an attire boosts performance when the players themselves say they feel almost naked and uncomfortable, conscious of the fact that while they do pirouettes, photographers “take pictures between your legs”.

“The panties are quite small, so it is not pleasant when they go a little astray,” Norwegian player Katinka Haltvik told Norwegian daily Dagbladet earlier this year.

To make matters worse, men wear loose-fitting tops and shorts – which clearly do not hamper their performance.

Yet what Norwegian papers dubbed ‘the panty crisis’ finds an odd counterpart in a beach volleyball attire row, where athletes were fighting for, not against, wearing a bikini.

Two female players from Germany, Karla Borger and Julia Sude, threatened to boycott a tournament in Qatar earlier this year after the Gulf country made it clear that they expected participants to wear T-shirts and knee-length shorts, “out of respect for the culture and traditions of the host country”.

“We are there to do our job, but we are being prevented from wearing our work clothes,” Borger told a German radio station, adding this was the only time a government had told them “how to do our job”.

Their boycott was partly motivated by the heat, which would definitely be an issue, the players explained.

But the organisers in Qatar proved to be much more reasonable than international beach volley authorities in the more recent row: they eventually allowed athletes to play in their bikinis if they chose to do so.

So, who should decide what is proper and improper? And by what criteria, because women athletes are becoming increasingly tired of being told what to wear by male heads of sports federations whose agendas do not always seem to have the athletes' best interest in mind.

The two cases

All the protagonists involved are fit, female athletes, of roughly the same age, wearing similar attire, from two European countries with compatible traditions and mentalities: Norway and Germany.

In both episodes, the women felt they did not have a choice but to abide by the rules or stir up a controversy.

Both sets of rules were, unsurprisingly, drawn up by men. In one case, presumably to make the games more enticing for male viewers; in the other to comply with tradition and religion, imposing modesty.

Male-dominated organisations have been denying women the right to decide what to do with their own bodies for centuries – but by doing so nowadays, they seem to be discrediting themselves and facing a growing number of protests by disgruntled players.

Meanwhile, the love/hate relationship with the bikini should perhaps remind us that if a revealing outfit can be a Western woman’s symbol of emancipation and her sister’s source of embarrassment and discomfort, we should drop the Eurocentric belief that wearing a headscarf is always and unequivocally a sign of submission. You do not help a woman become emancipated by removing her headscarf – you do so by granting her freedom of choice.


This piece was originally published in the August, 2021 edition of Splinters.

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