Beach handballers challenge patriarchal pretensions

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It is that time of the global sports cycle, usually a four year event but this year a Covid-caused quinquennial moment, when much of the world’s sports media, and many sports observers – serious, casual and occasional – seem to notice with some surprise that women play. Amid all the perplexed looks, instant expertise, and disparaging musings on the quaintness of some of these sporting pastimes, we also have more exposure and coverage of the eye-rollingly awful, ‘oh, really, here we go again’, actions of sports governing bodies. It seems that one of the unintended consequences of Olympic-mania is that more people temporarily at least note just how reprehensible and retrograde many of sports national and international governing bodies actually are. It’s a reminder at profoundly prosaic levels of just how far we are from any sort of gender equality in sport.

The most recent to fill up various social media feeds has been the decision by the Disciplinary Commission of the Beach Handball Euro 2021 tournament (in Varnia, Bulgaria) to fine the Norwegian women’s national team €150 per player per match (totalling €1500) because they had the audacity to wear lycra shorts rather than the extremely brief ‘bikini’ bottoms mandated by the sport’s rules, set by the International Handball Federation (IHF). The players made clear, this was a concern about sexualisation and comfort, choosing shorts over items of clothing that may only, under the rules, cover 10cm of the buttocks. To their credit the Norwegian federation stepped in and paid the fines, but could do nothing about the International Federation’s threat to disqualify the team.

This issue of uniforms has long been a source of tension, with women in both beach volleyball and handball pressing for change for some time, with some effect at Olympic level where the diversity of views of the legitimate extent of exposure of women’s bodies has seen shifts in requirements for beach volleyball. That there has been little or no effect elsewhere suggests that many International Federations’ claims of the power of the athletes’ voice are overstated as may be the claims of the prioritisation of athlete wellbeing. On top of this, we know that athletes tend to be a relatively compliant lot – they are by necessity rule followers – suggesting that this direct action by the Norwegian women’s team points to more widespread and deeper frustration over the IHF’s refusal to take further action.

In the social media I see, this issue has picked up speed with the publication of a photo of the men’s and women’s teams, highlighting the disparity between brief briefs and the men’s thigh length shorts, let alone singlets vs sports bras.

Not surprisingly, this disparity in flesh on display has raised hackles. Some of this, quite a lot of this, has been framed by a liberal notion of equality – if shorts are good enough for the men, why not the women? We’ll come back to that. Other responses have run a more libertarian line akin to ‘let them wear what they want’, which while similar to the equality of uniform design response comes up against the bigger question of the rights claimed by governing bodies to determine rules (or laws) of sport. No doubt, the International Handball Federation would argue that it is well within its rights to prescribe player uniforms – that they do so suggests that this is the case.

Historian Wray Vamplew distinguishes four categories of rules (or laws) of sport – (1) constitutive rules, that is formal playing regulations, (2) rules of eligibility, determining who may participate in the game, (3) competition rules, governing the specific event, and (4) regulatory rules, that govern expected behaviour. Vamplew places ‘dress codes’, and by implication uniforms, firmly in the regulatory rules category. He is also careful to note that it is not only national and international governing bodies that are rule-makers, but also clubs and other agencies. So, it is an accepted convention of sport that the relevant rule-makers may determine that there is a uniform and what it shall look like. That this is the case seems to push to the side the libertarian argument.

The equality case is more powerful, noting that the team did not wear the same style shorts as the men, but comparatively short legged lycra, as seen in the bronze medal match against Spain. But this is the principle of equality, shorts vs brief briefs, not a details of clothing design question.

Here the IHF seems to be on more than shaky ground: it is hard not to see the ‘brief briefs rule’ as anything other than some kind of masculinist fantasy notion of what a women’s beach game should look like. This is obvious in the point noted by the women that the required uniform made them feel ‘unnecessarily sexualised’ in a context where it is widely understood that women’s briefs make the game more appealing to (male) audiences. The team representative, Katinka Haltvik, also noted in an interview with Norwegian broadcaster NRK that the briefs were a problem during menstruation – but I am left supposing given the masculinist fantasy image of ‘bikini clad’ players that this is an unmentionable in the IHF and beyond any consideration.

Except that perhaps the ground is not as shaky as it seems – not because of the principle of equality where the IHF (and FIVA, regulating beach volleyball) are uncontestably in the wrong – but because of historical precedent. If we go back to Vamplew’s four classes of rules, one of the effects of rules of eligibility and regulatory rules has been that sport has always sought to control its participants’ bodies. From the Iranian women excluded from sports stadia to the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ excluding African Americans from major league baseball to the practice before World War One that women playing tennis, hockey and golf amongst others would wear long skirts and corsets, even when competing: sports governing bodies have long exerted this disciplining and exclusionary control over Othered athletes.

The sartorial rules were imposed without regard for their effect on women, for instance with early tennis players regularly noting their blood stained corsets after even mildly strenuous matches. Many of these rules were justified by claims to respectability, as seen in the outrage over women cyclists wearing bloomers and concern that the British Ladies Football Club players in 1895/6 wore what one analyst has termed “loose, bifurcated garments without corsets“. Underpinning this concern about ‘respectability’ lies a worry that making audiences aware of women’s bipedalism raises uncomfortable questions about sex and sexuality.

Charlotte “Lottie” Dod (1871-1960), English tennis player, five times Wimbledon champion

As other scholars have noted, these dress codes were contested, including in tennis by Lottie Dod (where her youth, first winning at Wimbledon in 1887 aged 15, gave her some leeway) as well as players such as Helen Wills and Suzanne Lenglen in the early 1920s. As Erica Munkwitz has noted, more subtle challenges may be seen with women riding in the hunt. Around 1900 if not earlier and where side saddle was still expected some of these women would wear a detachable apron over trousers giving the impression of a skirt, in part for safety reasons. Moving slightly later into the 20th century, Jaime Schultz has argued that the development of tampons and of the sports bra were fundamental turning points in women’s sport (and as a consequence, changing clothing possibilities): a very different set of considerations to those we see in men’s sports histories. Also, the Norwegian women are not alone this month: we’ve also seen that the German women’s gymnastics team for the Tokyo Olympics have replaced the high cut leotard with a full legged design, also it seems contesting sexualisation and asserting athlete comfort and well-being.

Contested as those codes may have been, as they are now, the IHF, in imposing this rule on women players, is doing what sports governing bodies have been doing for at last 130 years and more – disciplining women (and other Othered) athletes’ bodies. This makes the issue into a much bigger struggle, linked to presumptions of institutional authority and almost certainly woven into existing authorities’ claims to the right to govern. Athlete voices alone are clearly not enough.

It may seem a paradoxical inversion of practice to now require rather than resist sexualisation, but at heart it remains the same practice with the same patriarchal (in both generational and gendered terms) control over athlete’s bodies – be it to limit the effects of the so-called licentious Black body or to discipline the presence, movement and sexuality of women’s bodies. Sports’ governing bodies are making the same claims to control as they made 130 or more years ago. We’ll need bigger barricades and to stock up on our field rations.

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Malcolm MacLean is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and is currently Vice President of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport and Special Issue Editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport.

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