Dressed to Win at Rio 2016

By David Thomas

Rio is dressing up for the Olympics, but from beards to bikinis, strict rules govern what the competitors will be wearing.

Dressed to Win at Rio 2016

In March 2012, the International Volleyball Federation made an announcement that rocked the world of sport. It formally abandoned a rule that had made beach volleyball adored by men all over the world. Female competitors would no longer be required to wear bikinis.

Up to that point, the sport’s rules had stipulated that the women’s bikini bottoms should have “a maximum side width of 7 cm”. But the new rules allowed for “shorts of a maximum length of 3 cm above the knee, and sleeved or sleeveless tops”.

The change was presented as a way of making it easier for more countries to take up women’s beach volleyball: “Many of these countries have religious and cultural requirements, so the uniform needed to be more flexible,” said federation spokesman Richard Baker.

But culture wasn’t the only enemy of the bikini. Beach volleyball had become a feminist issue. Australia’s sports commission had investigated ‘sexploitation’ in sport, complaining that women had been asked to wear “uniforms intentionally [designed] to focus attention on the athletes’ bodies rather than for any technological, practical or performance-enhancing reasons”.

The players, however, didn’t rush to embrace the new look. US beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh said, “We need to be wearing bikinis. You don’t want to be wearing baggy clothes. We found something that is functional and sassy at the same time.”

Her fellow competitors evidently agreed. As a federation spokeswoman explains, with the weary formality of one who has been asked far too many questions on this subject, “At the London Olympics, athletes opted to wear the traditional uniforms as is still the case on the World Tour.”

At Rio this month, the beach volleyball will be held on the sand at Copacabana – and if there’s one place on Earth where a bikini is appropriate attire, that’s surely it. So admirers of tall, fit, beautiful women wearing very little clothing can rest easy. But it raises an interesting question: what other rules apply to the appearance of athletes at the Olympic Games?


When the Ancient Olympics began some 3000 years ago, the clothing rule was: ‘No clothes’. All competitors were male; all competed nude. Women were not allowed to take any part in sporting events. Married women were not even permitted to attend the Games, on pain of death. One woman, however, a widow called Callipateira, dared to be different – so legend has it.

Wanting to support her gymnast son, Peisirodus, she disguised herself as his male trainer and accompanied him to Olympia. He won his event and as Callipateira leapt into the air to celebrate, her clothes flew open to reveal her female body beneath.

Her life was spared. But thereafter all the trainers, as well as the athletes, were obliged to be naked, too, so as to prove their masculinity.


Today, the rules governing individual sports are drawn up by their various governing bodies, supervised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Some at first seem a little bizarre. For example, Article 23 of the United World Wrestling health regulations stipulates that “competitors must have their beard completely shaved. If beards are worn, they must not be shorter than 5 mm.” They are further forbidden to have any sweat on their body when they arrive at the mat for the start of a bout, or at the start of each period. They may not “apply any greasy or sticky substance to the body”. Female competitors may not wear an underwired bra.

There are good reasons for all of these rules. A competitor is not allowed to have a short beard or stubble because then his chin could “rub like sandpaper and open up a cut”, according to wrestling’s governing body. If a wrestler’s body is sweaty or greasy, that makes it much harder to grasp and would put an opponent at a disadvantage. An underwired bra is forbidden because “any metal objects, which could also include zippers, could be a hazard during wrestling and poke or gouge a competitor”.

Understandably, preventing competitors gaining an unfair advantage from their attire is a key concern. The rules for cycling decree that: “Apparel cannot be adapted to serve any purpose apart from that of clothing.”

As an example of a design that would be barred, the rules mention “wings” between a cyclist’s arms and body, or shoes shaped to make them more aerodynamic. Similarly, athletes in jumping events are forbidden from wearing shoes with thick, bouncy soles.


The importance of fairness in sports costumes was highlighted by the swimming at Beijing 2008, where competitors wearing Speedo LZR Racer suits won 98% of all available medals, breaking 23 world records in the process. The suits covered the swimmers’ entire torsos and their legs down to their knees, or even their ankles. Not only were the Speedo suits super-streamlined, cutting down resistance in the water, but they were also said to aid swimmers’ buoyancy. Some competitors even wore multiple suits on top of one another to make them float more easily and thus go faster.

Jason Rance, who headed the Speedo R&D team behind the suit, insisted the buoyancy rumours were untrue: “Speedo has always tested for buoyancy because we don’t believe it’s fair to have a suit that basically allows you to float on the water. All we’re doing is helping to reduce the resistance the swimmer faces in the water.”

FINA, the world federation in charge of international competitive swimming, has banned all high-tech full-body suits and the rules for the 2016 Olympics are geared to making swimsuits as conventional as possible. All manufacturers whose suits will be worn in competitive events must provide one square metre of the fabric from which those suits will be made to ensure that it is acceptable.


Synchronised swimming, or ‘synchro’, has also come under scrutiny. Along with rhythmic gymnastics it is one of just two Olympic sports in which only women compete. And as with so many sports involving women, particularly those with an element of aesthetic judgement, the issue of appearance has become a topic of heated debate.

Synchro swimmers are extremely fit athletes, possessing strength, flexibility and tremendous cardiovascular endurance. But because they wear colourful, sparkly costumes and heavy make-up and have smiles fixed to their faces, they can sometimes be seen as stereotypes of unliberated, submissive femininity. Yet the rules try to make synchro swimmers look anything but flamboyant. For example, they state, “Theatrical make-up shall not be worn. Straight make-up that provides a natural, clean and healthy glow is accepted.”

The only comments about costumes come from guidelines controlled by the world swimming federation. These state that, “Suits shall be in good moral taste,” and specifically warn against suits that are in any way transparent. Nor is there any insistence that synchronised swimming contestants have to smile. The rules simply state that marks will be awarded for “expressing the mood of the music” and the “manner of presentation”. Most synchro routines are accompanied by upbeat music, appropriate to the kinds of movements the performers make. That mood requires a smile and so that’s what the women do. But there’s nothing in the rules to stop them weeping sorrowfully to a funeral march.

So perhaps, as with the beach volleyball players, the synchro women simply like wearing pretty clothes. After all, athletes of both sexes are young people with fantastic bodies. We should not be surprised if they enjoy showing them off.


The rules governing athletics state that competitors’ clothing must be clean “and designed and worn so as not to be objectionable”. It must be made of material that is “not transparent, even when wet” and must be the same colour on the front and back. Beyond that, however, it’s up to the runners and their national federations to choose what they wear.

Male runners, by and large, still wear shorts and vests that have barely changed appearance in the past 50 years, albeit sprinters now tend to wear clinging shorts, to ease movement and lessen air resistance. The women, however, have moved from shorts and vests, just like the men, to much smaller, more clinging two-piece costumes that increasingly resemble beach volleyballers’ bikinis.

No rules have driven this change. It’s just what the athletes want to wear. And even when Olympians appear to be wearing traditional clothes, change is still taking place.

The equestrian events involve riding clothes with designs that can be traced to the 19th century. But although today’s versions look similar, worsted breeches and wool riding coats are being replaced by modern fabrics that keep riders cooler, remove sweat and stretch as riders move.

A spokeswoman for the International Equestrian Federation notes that, “Change is driven by the riders themselves. The perception is that the equestrian look is old-fashioned, but now it’s not. These are athletes in form-fitting clothes and they’ve got amazing bodies because they’re so fit nowadays. Our uniform is incredibly beautiful and actually very sexy.”


It is reasonable to suggest that many female spectators are attracted to a fit man in perfectly fitting riding clothes, just as men are to a great-looking woman in a bikini.

But that’s not to say that genuine sexism doesn’t exist in sport, or that clothes aren’t part of the cause of it. Take the sad story of Niklas Stoepel, from Wattenscheid in Germany. He had trained since he was seven, had reached his sport’s highest national standard and should have been eligibile for the German national team. He dreamed of competing in the Olympics. There was just one problem. Niklas was a synchro swimmer. He had no objection to shaving his legs or wearing glittery costumes. But the IOC would not allow men to compete in synchro events.

In 2014, the world swimming federation FINA finally allowed men to compete in mixed male/female duets. But the IOC has not relented: there will be no male synchro at Rio. Women may put on boxing gloves, but the rules still forbid men from wearing make-up and pretty costumes. If that’s not discrimination, what is?


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