October 15, 2021

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Ford: Why does sexism still run rampant in Olympic beach volleyball?

5 min read

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It’s called the inguinal line and if you are not lolling about on a nude beach, it’s rarely seen in public. (For those not married to a medical doctor, that’s the crease between the upper thigh and the torso.)

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Clothing usually covers it. Even skimpy lingerie does the trick. Modesty (what a Victorian-era word) and even morality normally keep it out of public view.

There is one distinct exception — women’s beach volleyball. The sport made its Olympic debut in 1996 in Atlanta and, in the ensuing 25 years, has been a television ratings juggernaut. I suspect that has less to do with the physicality of the sport than the physicality of its female competitors.

While we congratulate our Olympic athletes — particularly the women, who brought home all but six of Canada’s 24 medals earned in Japan — can we not do something about the sexism still used to make women mere objects?

Is it necessary to have some of our finest athletes expose themselves before the cameras and television audiences? Have we not gone beyond that, at least with athletes who aren’t competing to be the prettiest or the sexiest, but the best? Yet it seems necessary to make women’s bodies the attractant of the male gaze in order to boost television ratings. Sex sells; I get it. But should any event in the Olympic Games be reduced to sexualized representation?

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It’s the anomaly that’s glaring. Nobody expects women wrestlers, weightlifters or boxers to present a sexualized image.

The contrast between the uniforms worn by Canada’s women’s soccer team and the beach volleyball teams is startling. For the soccer team, their shorts and tops aren’t that much different than the uniforms worn by the men’s team. For the beach volleyball team, skimpy almost doesn’t cover (pardon the pun) the extent, or lack of, fabric. The next step down that road would be nakedness. The bikinis worn by the women — on all of the competing teams — have barely enough fabric to accommodate names and numbers.

To be fair, there is an argument that beach volleyball began in North America on the beaches of California where bikinis are a common sight. There is also the belief the less fabric available to trap chafing sand, the better. Anyone who has been tossed by an errant wave onto a beach knows the result — sand gets everywhere. It’s not pleasant. But we all know why they wear bikinis. Broadcast ratings — a.k.a. sex.

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Every single woman on both soccer and beach volleyball teams is young, vibrant, glowing with beauty, hard work and character. Yet only one team has been sexualized to the extent their bodies are the main attraction.

In her 2002 book Black Tights: Women, Sport and Sexuality, Laura Robinson writes: “Once a woman enters the public realm she no longer belongs solely to herself. All too often, if her body meets the very confining set of physical standards that are currently exalted, our culture steals her very sexuality, transforming her into an object of male fantasy.”

When Lululemon designed the Canadian women’s bikini uniform for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Claire Robertson, design director for intimates, bras, swimwear and tops, told the National Post without any apparent hint of irony: “The concept behind the design is no distractions … When the athletes came in, we set up infrared cameras to track the movements of their breasts as they moved.”

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As far as “movement” is concerned, the uniform is spectacularly successful. With barely enough fabric to cover the, ahem, naughty bits, beach volleyball has become a teenage boy’s fantasy. I’m sure that’s not the reaction our elite athletes want or support.

Regulating what women wear (and one can’t blame the International Olympic Committee, more’s the pity) has been a function of society since Adam and Eve covered their nakedness with fig leaves. Last month, the European Handball Federation fined the Norwegian women’s team the equivalent of $2,217 when the women wore shorts instead of bikini bottoms. To be fair, beach handball isn’t an Olympic event, but the sheer effrontery of such sexism should give everyone pause.

I’m all for choice and equality, so the men’s teams should wear the equivalent of bikini bottoms or the women should wear shorts and tank tops, just like the men.

I’m not holding my breath.

Catherine Ford is a regular columnist for the Calgary Herald. 

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