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Uniforms And Close-Up Shots: Changes Add Up In An Effort To Desexualize The Olympics

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At the Tokyo Olympics, organizers are pushing a message of fairness between genders and putting a focus on, quote, "sport appeal," not sex appeal. It started at the opening ceremony. For most countries, both a woman and a man led their teams in with their nation's flags. During the games, NPR's Leila Fadel reports that German gymnasts made a statement with their leotards.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The team paraded into the gymnastics arena for the qualifiers in crimson, black and white long-legged body suits dotted with twinkling crystals. German gymnast Sarah Voss.

SARAH VOSS: Our message behind the unitard was to encourage young women and girls in all sports to feel good in their skin, wear whatever they feel like. We just want everyone to feel the best version of themselves.

FADEL: Voss first debuted the outfit at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championship in April. Her teammates followed suit. At the time, she told public broadcaster ZDF that as a little girl, she didn't see the tight, bikini-cut leotard she performed in as a big deal. But when she hit puberty, she became uncomfortable. So for the Olympics, the team made the decision to wear the new outfits on the world stage, a statement against the sexualization of their sport.

VOSS: We all sat and agreed that we wanted to wear the long, black unitard simply because we felt amazing in it, and we felt like it was the best opportunity to show it.

FADEL: Voss says ditching the bikini-cut leotard isn't a knock on athletes who prefer the shorter outfit. It's a statement about choice for women to compete in what they feel best wearing. And the choice the Germans made without a religious reason was seen as revolutionary in gymnastics, a sport where powerhouse athletes typically compete in sparkling bikini-cut leotards. The history of women in sports has often been defined by organizations policing what they wear.

DAVID WALLECHINSKY: The story that comes to mind is Katie Taylor, the Irish boxer.

FADEL: That's David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian.

WALLECHINSKY: When boxing was about to be added to the Olympics, they were trying to convince the International Boxing Federation to allow women's boxing. And they told her, well, yeah, but you have to wear skirts, you know? And she said, I don't even wear a skirt when I go to a nightclub. I'm not going to wear it in the ring.

FADEL: The International Boxing Association backed down, and that was only nine years ago. Today, there are a record number of women competing on the world stage in Tokyo. And the Olympics Broadcasting Committee issued updated portrayal guidelines to work toward fair and equal coverage of male and female athletes, including guidance not to zoom in on body parts that would sexualize the competitor.

But the biggest controversy about what women athletes are asked to wear did not happen at the Olympics. It was at the European Beach Handball Championships this month. The Norwegian women's team shunned uniform requirements that say they have to wear close-fitting bottoms and only about four inches of material can cover their behinds on each side. Men wear baggy shorts and a tank top. The Norwegian women wore shorts instead, got fined about $177 a player for breaking the rules but made the statement they intended, sparking a public outcry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I mean, it is just sexist, isn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This time, they did opt for the longer shorts to protest against sexism.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I was fuming when I saw this.

FADEL: Pop star Pink even offered to pay the team's fines. Now there's public scrutiny of the bikinis female beach volleyball players at the Olympics are wearing, but athletes in Tokyo say bikinis work for their sport. Sarah Pavan is on Canada's Olympic beach volleyball team.

SARAH PAVAN: We are not only exposed to the elements, exposed to the heat, but we're running around. We're in the sand. We're getting sweaty. So the bikinis are the most comfortable and practical choices for our uniforms.

FADEL: Anything else, she says, would be heavy, uncomfortable and hurt their game. Bikinis are not required for women to compete. They can wear a top and brief or a one-piece. There are cultural and religious exceptions. Pavan says she wears T-shirts, leggings or long-sleeved shirts in the cold, but it's hot and humid in Tokyo.

PAVAN: We do get a lot of criticism for that, but I choose to see it as we are strong, confident women who like our bodies. And that is something that is severely lacking in our society today. So instead of seeing us as being sexualized, please see us as being great role models of what strong, confident women look like today.

FADEL: It's all about choice. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF PACO'S "SATIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.