Olympic Uniforms: Less Clothing Means Better Results

Women say smaller Olympics uniforms are more comfortable, get better results.


Aug. 18, 2008— -- With their toned bodies and sun-kissed skin, beach volleyball players have more to show off than their lightning quick serves and powerful blocks. Especially if the players are women.

Beach volleyball is one of the most glaring examples of uniform discrepancy, with men and women wearing strikingly different outfits to play the same sport.

Men jump and dive into the sand wearing loose-fitting tank tops and shorts that hit mid-thigh. Women wear bikinis, the kind that make waxing oh-so-crucial.

In gymnastics, women wear leg-baring leotards while their male counterparts switch between loose shorts and snug pants.

And female runners often wear spandex tops and shorts, if not a bikini-type uniform, while men wear shorts that are either loose or spandex.

But, in general, there are few, if any, complaints from the athletes whose Olympics uniforms are typically governed by their sports' international federations.

Fabrizio Rossini, the press officer for the Federation Internationale de Volleyball, said female beach volleyball players have the option of playing in a one-piece uniform, but most prefer the bikinis. The federation is the international governing body for Olympics volleyball.

Beach volleyball has reached more and more people since debuting at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, which has led to some comments from spectators about the bikinis.

"It's a very tough sport," Rossini said via e-mail. "Only the best athletes in the world can perform at this level, playing more than one hour, running and jumping on a complicated surface like the sand, under strong wind, heavy rain or the hottest conditions. If they didn't like their uniforms, the FIVB would have received tons of complaints for them, which is not the case."

Holly McPeak, a three-time Olympics beach volleyball player and winner of the bronze medal at the 2004 Athens games, said she'd pick the bikini over the one-piece every time.

"It's not even close," she said. "There's so many reasons for it."

Olympic Beach Volleyball: Women Prefer Bikinis

Not only are they more comfortable, the bikinis allow for a greater range of motion. One-pieces also have the unfortunate side effect of trapping sand where it doesn't belong.

"When you dive, the sand goes down the top and collects in the bottom," McPeak, 39, said.

She wore a one-piece at the request of her sponsor at a tournament in the mid-1990s. "It looked great on TV, but it was not the most comfortable thing," she said.

McPeak grew up playing beach volleyball in her native Manhattan Beach, Calif. She has played professionally since 1991 and has racked up 72 tournament wins.

"That's how we spend all of our summers," she said. "It's a way of life here."

And the uniforms reflect the history of the sport: Men and women traditionally play beach volleyball in their swimsuits. The federation-sanctioned, competition suits, she said, cover more than a traditional bikini.

McPeak said most of the women on the AVP Crocs Tour, which she plays on, wear bikinis a lot smaller than those worn at the Olympics. And men on the AVP Tour typically don't wear a shirt, which McPeak said is a welcome change from FIBV regulations.

Rossini said the volleyball federation makes some exceptions to its standards. Before any official matches or tournaments, players sign agreements with the federation for a number of things, including game rules and photo rights. While only federation-sanctioned uniforms can be worn, the organization has made exceptions in countries like India, where some players recently requested a cover-up for religious reasons.

"The FIVB has always accepted those requests to promote the sport everywhere in the world," he said.

Gymnastics, which is hugely popular come Olympics season, is another sport in which men and women wear starkly different uniforms, although they also compete on vastly different apparatuses.

"Other than the floor exercise and the vault, they don't do the same events," Leslie King, senior director of communications for USA Gymnastics, said.

While the women wear leotards for all their events, long-sleeved with no leg covering, the men wear shorts on vault and the floor exercise and tight-fitting pants on the pommel horse, parallel and high bars and rings.

The shorts, King said, allow greater range of motion for the men when they are tumbling, running and jumping.

Olympic Gymnastics: Uniforms and Shorts

All leotards are custom-made based on each girl's body, King said.

But the occasional noticeable wedgie after a routine? "I don't think there's probably any way to avoid it," she said.

Although the outfits are custom-made, the girls are young and still growing, King said, and she's never heard anyone complain about leotards that creep up.

The women often practice in a variety of clothing, including short-sleeved leotards and spandex shorts, while men often practice topless.

As in Olympics beach volleyball, the gymnasts' uniforms are regulated by an international federation. In Beijing last week, the U.S. women took home the silver, the men, bronze. And Americans Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson took home gold and silver individual medals, respectively.

Even male and female runners wear different uniforms, with women often seen in briefs, sometimes called "bun huggers," or spandex shorts and men in either spandex shorts or a looser variety.

Tom Surber, media information manager for USA Track & Field, said that American athletes don't have any regulations on what style of clothing they wear and there aren't different standards for men and women.

"They can wear whatever they want," he said. "Whatever they perform best in."

The rules say very little about clothing, focusing instead on shoes and the bibs that athletes wear to identify themselves. The International Association of Athletics Federations regulations speak mostly to advertising rules on competition clothing rather than the attire itself.

Melody Drnach is the action vice president of the National Organization for Women. The women's beach volleyball bikinis, she said, have come up for discussion a few times in her office as tournaments were aired on television.

But Drnach is not an athlete -- just "a wannabe," she said -- so she can't say whether skimpy outfits affect the outcome of competition. It's up to the athletes to define their needs and speak up if they aren't working, she said.

Likewise, Marj Snyder, chief programming officer for the Women's Sports Foundation, said that if the female athletes wearing skimpier uniforms than their male counterparts don't feel exploited, then it's not a problem.

Costumes: It's All About Comfort, and a Little About Fashion

At the 2004 Athens games, women made up about 41 percent of the athletic population. Snyder said that figure is projected to rise to about 45 percent this year. On the U.S. team, women make up a little less than 50 percent of the athletes.

In addition to tradition, Snyder said, sports uniforms for both men and women are often changed by fashion.

Field hockey uniforms, she noted, used to be a tunic before morphing into wool kilts. Now the women play in form-fitting skirts made of breathable, modern fabrics.

And basketball uniforms for both men and women have gone from the tighter clothing and shorter shorts in favor of baggier tops and shorts that evoke an urban, hip-hop style.

Female Australian basketball players competed in skintight bodysuits for years, before giving them up in 2005.

"It didn't catch on," Snyder said.

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