Bikinigate: Fining women for not wearing skimpy outfits? Come on, lads, admit you only want to leer

Opinion: The athletes of Norway’s handball team wore shorts instead. Just like the men

Ah now, doesn’t sport have enough credibility problems? As if it weren’t enough to have the suspicion of doping hanging over elite sport, throwing doubt on so many competitors, and the serious lack of fairness for sportswomen posed by rulings on trans participation.

Now we have the disciplinary committee of the European Handball Federation apparently throwing its misogynistic weight about on Monday, when it fined the Norway women's beach-handball team for "improper clothing" after they wore shorts instead of bikini bottoms during Sunday's bronze-medal game against Spain at the European Beach Handball Championships in Bulgaria.

The International Handball Federation requires women to wear bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg”. The sides of the bikini bottoms must be no more than 10cm deep. Men ... well, men can wear shorts that go down to within 10cm of their knees if they’re “not too baggy”. Ah, we get it now, lads. All part of the show.

Handball's governing body might as well say, 'Yes, we call ourselves a sport, but really what we want is to provide a bunch of young fit women jumping about with their butts wobbling. For your delectation, gentlemen'

When the Norwegian women wanted to play in shorts because bikini bottoms are too revealing, they were threatened with fines if they wore anything covering more than 10cm of their butts. It’s 2021. And it’s not April 1st. Does beach handball consider itself a real sport?


“I don’t see why we can’t play in shorts,” says 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.”

The International Handball Federation told the New York Times on Tuesday that its focus was on the Olympics, not uniforms, and that it hadn’t received official complaints previously (although it later acknowledged that Norway had officially complained; apparently Norway has done so repeatedly since 2006, and the NYT has one of the letters). Charmingly, the federation’s spokeswoman, Jessica Rockstroh, added: “Globally, we know that other countries like to play in bikinis, for example, especially in South America.” She doesn’t know the reason for the rules. “We’re looking into it internally.”

As well they might, the sport suddenly having suddenly acquired the flavour of lap-dancing. The European Handball Federation said it was simply enforcing rules set by the international federation. Only following orders.

The whole farrago is risible. They might as well say, “Yes, we call ourselves a sport, and have a federation and all that important guff, but, really, what we want is to provide a bunch of young fit women jumping about with their butts wobbling. For your delectation, gentlemen.”

Obviously, the overlords of beach handball – I’m imagining them to be white, male, balding, pudgy and leering, and why ruin my perception by checking? It’s irrelevant to the issue, after all – have trashed the reputation of their sport. Which will upset the athletes but doesn’t matter much to most of us. As a sports-fan friend observed today: “Bit of a joke of an Olympic sport anyway, really. Why not tennis on sand, too, or javelin underwater?”

Beach volleyball is taken more seriously here. It's a fast game with two per team, and movement is more challenging because of the sand, as the Ireland player Miriam Gormally told The Irish Times in 2019. She also mentioned wearing three or four layers of warm but not heavy gear, plus sand socks. "People dress for the weather." The bikini-dominated image of women's beach sport comes from top-level competitions like the Olympics, with rules set by the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball.

Ironically, during the English track championships last weekend, the double Paralympian world champion sprinter and long-jumper Olivia Breen said she was told by an official that her running briefs were “too short and inappropriate”. She was “speechless”, later saying women should not be made to feel self-conscious while competing.

Clearly women can’t get it right for controlling types who seem obsessed with female bottoms.

It's all part of the wider picture that sees many schools in Ireland still oblige girls to wear skirts – restrictive, impractical, a "traditional" version of how women should present themselves – in their uniforms.

But before we mock beach sports, where clothing has long been an issue, with some players finding bikinis degrading or impractical, look at the double standards in more established sports. Women have spoken out in recent decades about being obliged to wear more revealing clothes in track and field and in tennis, among others. In 2011 the Badminton World Federation ruled women must wear skirts or dresses to play at elite level, to help revive flagging interest in women’s badminton. Says it all.

Wimbledon's strict dress code in fact does not oblige women to wear skirts. It prefers to get its knickers in a twist about everyone being in white. But have a look at chatboards like Talk Tennis, which has plenty of remarks about skirts giving a "cuter look", and how men prefer to watch women play in skirts.

Closer to home, whereas women playing “ladies” Gaelic football wear shorts, camogie players are obliged to wear a skirt, skort or divided skirt. (These last two seem similar, making them look like skirts, with extra fabric.) This is according to rule 6 of official playing rules, updated just this year. One former player doesn’t know why the rule remains, other than “tradition”. Mind you, she says, “it’s come a long way since the special knickers we wore under our skirts in the 1980s”, describing a white skirt with red O’Neill knickers underneath. That would be quite the flash during play.