Bikini-gate: Norway’s women’s beach handball team blew the whistle on rampant sexism in sport

Beach handballPhoto/Screenshot: norgeshandballforbund / Instagram

The recent furor over the Norwegian women’s beach handball team receiving a fine for a uniform protest made news worldwide. However, despite a worldwide backlash from national governing bodies, players, the media, and even a rockstar, the International Handball Federation refuses to budge. It says that it cannot make any changes to rules about uniforms until an international conference in Switzerland later this year. Isn’t it about time we blew the whistle on sexist practices in sport? Given that sportswomen worldwide are role models for the younger generation, what does this case say about the underlining sexism rampant throughout most sports?

Fined for wearing shorts…in 2021

The sport of beach handball has been called into disrepute since the events of the European Beach Handball Championship in Bulgaria this July. In their bronze medal match, the Norwegian women’s team opted to wear shorts instead of the required bikini bottoms. They did this, they insisted, out of concerns about their comfort and modesty. The European Handball Federation (EHF) then fined each player EUR 150 which created a furor about the sexualization of sport and the rampant sexism within.

Both the Danish and the Norwegian governing bodies had advised, in advance, the EHF about the unease its female players felt playing scantily clad. This is in stark contrast to male players who can scuttle around on the beach wearing knee-length shorts and singlets. Yet the EHF was unmoved.

Criticism came from a wide range of politicians, sports figures, and even celebrities – with rockstar Pink announcing she would personally pay the team fine against “the very sexist rules about their uniform…” in an act of solidarity and protest.

Pressure mounting from several countries governing bodies and politicians

There has been growing pressure from both inside and outside political circles for the EHF / IHF to change the uniform rules. National associations from Norway, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, France, and even Samoa have expressed their desire to rid the female game of its scantily clad uniforms.

Here in Norway, the case of the beach handball team has also caught the attention of the government. The Minister of Culture, Abid Raja (V), hopes to end this gender inequality. He has written to his Swedish and Danish counterparts in the hope of a united effort to change the rules.

The EHF responded that criticism against its decision to fine the Norwegian women’s team had come due to “disinformation on the procedure.” The Beach Handball Commission will present its new motions at an IHF conference in November.

Beach handball
No big deal: a female beach handball player in shorts. Photo: Linn Jørum Sulland / Heiko Junge NTB

Response shows how out of touch governing bodies are

This pathetic response from the EHF and the main worldwide governing federation, the International Handball Federation (IHF), shows just how inflexible, outdated, and out of touch these governing bodies are. Their handling of the matter is a textbook example of what happens when a bunch of dinosaurs is left in charge of a sport.

The Norwegian team had informed the EHF, in April of this year, long before the European tournament, that the female players were uneasy about being forced to wear bikini bottoms. That the EHF had advance knowledge of their motives to change uniforms (i.e out of a need for both for comfort and to preserve some dignity and modesty) and yet still went about fining the team is a disgrace. Both the IHF and EHF have the power to change any rules they fit (seeing as though they both, literally, have the power and authority), and simply delaying any action until conferences is beyond a joke.

Why do females in sport need to be scantily clad?

So why were the EHF and IHF so slow to act to change the rules about women’s uniforms? More importantly, why are women forced to play sports, scantily clad, two decades into the 21st century? In cases like this, one only has to follow the money. It’s a sad state of affairs but sex does indeed sell. One wonders whether the EHF / IHF receive the media coverage, advertising, and sponsorship money if women weren’t scantily clad? What sort of sordid segment of the population is the EHF / IHF catering to whereby it forces its owns players to wear next to nothing in order to improve ratings?

The main job of any governing association, or federation, is surely to ensure the wellbeing of its players. Fining them for wearing shorts is both grossly draconian and utterly disrespectful. The fine must have come as an absolute shock for the Norwegian female players. Growing up in one of the most gender-equal societies in the world, the fine must have been a source of utter humiliation and disbelief.

New generation of sportswomen actively changing the conversation

Beach handball is not the only sport where women are fed up with overt sexualization and gender inequality. A new generation of sportswomen are fed up with sexism in sport and have boldly started to call it out. Figures like tennis players Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams have used her global profile for social change and to focus attention on some of the social and racial inequalities present in sport.

During the recent Tokyo Olympics, the German female gymnastics team decided to wear full-body unitards covering both their legs and arms. They did so as a protest against the “sexualization” of sport. Normally, female gymnasts must perform their routines in bikini-cut leotards whilst the men can romp around the floor in full-length unitards. Yet another case of double standards in sport and the German girls should be rightly applauded for their protest.

Finally, the US women’s soccer team, led by iconic captain Megan Rapoe, filed a lawsuit demanding pay equity with their male counterparts. The lawsuit was ultimately unsuccessful (thrown out by a US district court judge stating they had not been underpaid) but their plight helped to publicize the inequality of payments between male and female athletes.

Uniform change presents opportunity for growth and education

There is huge potential for this fast-paced game outside of its traditional heartland in Europe. For the game to grow and thrive in other parts of the world, the IHF needs to change this uniform role. The IHF needs to quickly be taught how to be flexible and adaptable for the game to spread to countries in the Middle East, Africa, South America, or a number of any regions where dress standards (for both sexes) are more modest and conservative.

If both the IHF and EHF want to learn from this experience they should remember that it is only in a handful of (mainly) Western countries that females would feel comfortable (and clearly even then, not many actually do) wearing a bikini in the first place. Surely female athletes should have the choice to wear uniforms that they feel comfortable with – for some it may be shorts, for others bikini bottoms but the players must have the final say.

Norwegian team Handball Loss World Championship
Norwegian handball team… in shorts. Hamburg,Germany – Norwegian team: Vidar Ruud / NTB scanpix

Survey shows little faith in authorities, time for a change

The whole sordid and sorry case of fining a female team, for wearing shorts, and its handling by the European and International governing authorities, is a blight on the game of beach handball. Both authorities must use this lesson to better educate themselves about the overt sexualization in their sport, the paramount need for ensuring the wellbeing and welfare of its players, and a general discussion about gender inequality and sexism.

A survey conducted by the BBC last year showed that 65% of professional British sportswomen had experienced sexism but only 10% felt able to report it. Given the recent actions of the IHF and EHF, in dealing with the Norwegian women’s beach handball team, is it any wonder that only 10% of female athletes are reluctant and would want to report sexism to these same types of authorities? It is time to blow the whistle and end the game for these dinosaurs in charge.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Norway Today unless specifically stated.

About the author:

Jonathan is a lover of the written word. He believes the best way to combat this polarization of news and politics, in our time, is by having a balanced view. Both sides of the story are equally important. He also enjoys traveling and live music.

Source: #Norway Today / #NorwayTodayNews

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1 Comment on "Bikini-gate: Norway’s women’s beach handball team blew the whistle on rampant sexism in sport"

  1. I won’t bother watching then

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