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Explains: How the Tokyo Olympics brought the “sexualization of sport” into focus

Written by Ektaa Malik, edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |

Updated: July 29, 2021 7:34:53 a.m.

While medal wins, new world records and spectacular surprises generally dominate the discussion about the Olympics, this time another important topic has repeatedly come into the spotlight – the “sexualization of sport”.

The phrase hit the headlines for the first time when the The German women’s gymnastics team wore suits as their uniform at the sporting event, instead of the traditionally preferred jerseys.

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The German women’s gymnastics team made headlines with their selected wardrobe. The four-person team, consisting of Sarah Voss, Pauline Schaefer-Betz, Elisabeth Seitz and Kim Bui, wore red and white full body suits for the Olympic qualification. The team discussed before the event and decided to wear the unitards to “encourage agency and encourage women to wear what makes them comfortable.”

The team also wore unitards to their training sessions. He had also worn the full suit at the European Championships in April.

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

Leotard vs Unitard

Unitards and leotards are both skin-tight garments, mostly made of lycra and elastane, and due to their elasticity they are the perfect choice for gymnastics and dance. The German team’s one-piece suit is essentially a skin-tight suit that covers the athlete’s body from ankles to wrists – a departure from tradition. Gymnasts wear the bikini-cut leotard the longest, skin-tight, one-piece clothing that covers the upper body and leaves the thighs free.

The French acrobat Jules Leotard is often credited with creating the clothing of the same name, which has been worn by athletes and dancers for more than a century. Male gymnasts, on the other hand, wear body-covering outfits. Olympic rules allow athletes to wear full-body suits, but the rare times an athlete chose to wear them were religious reasons.

Norwegian team fined for outfit choice

The case of the German women’s gymnastics team isn’t the only costume dispute that has made headlines in the sports world of late.

The Norwegian beach handball women who took part in the European Beach Handball Championship decided to take off the usual bikini panties for a game against a tight pair of shorts.

The Norwegian beach handball women (Instagram / norwaybeachhandballwomen)

The Norwegian team chose shorts because bikini bottoms were unsuitable for a sport that required diving in the sand and were also viewed by some as degrading to women. For their decision, the team was fined 1,500 euros by the European Handball Federation.

The Norwegian Handball Federation fully supports its 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 met with broad approval worldwide. Acclaimed US gymnast and four-time Olympic champion Simone Biles has praised it but said she will continue to wear the bikini-cut jersey as it “makes her appear taller during competition”.

As a direct result of the status of the German team, the Olympia-Rundfunk demanded a crackdown on the shop window for “publicly sexualized images of female athletes”.

The International Olympic Committee has refreshed and updated its “Presentation Guidelines” and asked for “gender equitable and fair” broadcasts of its events. The new guiding points include suggestions such as: “Do not focus unnecessarily on looks, clothing, or intimate parts of the body”; and ‘framing or deleting a’ wardrobe malfunction ‘… to respect the athlete’s integrity. “

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