The Olympic Line in the Sand

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Mary Rose Somarriba
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There's nothing quite like the excitement of the Olympics, and it's hard to believe they're almost over! This year has been no exception in amazing performances.

On Wednesday for instance we saw the U.S. take both gold and silver in the women's beach volleyball finals. I couldn't help but notice it airing on TVs in several of the pubs and restaurants I walked past throughout the day. United States vs. United States might not be the most seat-gripping match to imagine, but nevertheless it appeared to have a wide audience. Which made me wonder what we all wonder at some point about this sport in particular: Are some people just watching it for the cute girls in bikinis?

I don't need to supply photos to convince you readers that there's a noticeable discrepancy between male and female uniforms for Olympic beach volleyball. The female players wear bikinis while their male counterparts in the sport wear T-shirts and full shorts.

It all started in 1999 when the Federation Internationale de Volleyball changed the uniform regulations for beach volleyball athletes to swim attire, and the women's uniforms just so happened to be much more revealing. But, unlike swimming sports in which uniforms of sleek suits are selected for optimum athletic performance, volleyball has little to require uniforms so skimpy—indeed skimpier than even the swimming sports. Even less reasoning exists to explain why women would need less clothing to perform the same sport as men.

Lest we fool ourselves, we know the inequality in uniform has no rational basis. The female volleyball players themselves know the uniforms are for sex appeal. As British player Denise Johns put it, "The people who own the sport want it to be sexy... I used to play in shorts and a T-shirt and was reluctant to change. But if it gets volleyball attention, so be it." At a recent press conference on the subject, April Ross too attempts to justify the outfits in the name of bringing more viewers to the sport: "[The uniform] draws them in. Once they see the athleticism of the sport, they’re hooked on it."

That's an optimistic way too look at it. It may just as well be that viewers tune in for the skin. In March, the uniform regulations were revised to allow women to compete in uniforms with greater coverage due to certain countries' cultural or religious preferences. But keeping bikinis the default is telling. The inequality remains; the burden is on the woman to stand out and choose otherwise.

Some have suggested the men's uniforms should be shirtless with Speedos for true equality with the females. The males are not as enthusiastic. As player Phil Dalhausser sees it, "I’ve practiced in Brazil where the Brazilians are wearing Speedos and it just doesn’t look good. To see a guy’s package is just not the same."

He may have a point. But, regardless, if the reasoning behind the skimpy uniforms is flawed to begin with, extending it to the men does little to solve it. If anything, pandering blatant sex appeal for viewership risks hurting the integrity of the sport.

So the question remains: Could women's beach volleyball maintain its viewership without the bikinis? Gathering from their hesitation to choose reasonable uniforms for the sport, the answer may be one they don't want to hear.

Photograph courtesy ofkevinv033 on Flickr.

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