When it comes to the Olympic games, it’s hard not to be captivated by the human body and what it can accomplish. But looking at uniform changes over the years, it's clear that some people think those bodies — if they belong to females — are best shown half-naked. After all, the average WNBA game is watched by less than 300,000 basketball fans, while the Lingerie Bowl is watched by millions.
Thus, in recent years, we’ve seen the emergence of Olympic beach volleyball, along with requisite bikinis. And other sports have tried to follow suit, with mixed results.
"Originally, the plans [called] for the badminton players and women's boxers to wear skirts," Springer says. "They wanted a more 'feminine look' to their athletes, and that raised a lot of eyebrows because it wasn't about competition. It was about appealing to, perhaps, the 18 to 34-year-old male demographic and others, and that did not sit well with many athletes."
Outcry from both female athletes and supporters led to a change in boxing and badminton officials' tunes. Queen Underwood, the American favorite to win gold in the lightweight division, hasn't worn a skirt in years, and says she would feel distracted and uncomfortable. Female Scottish badminton player Imogen Bankier called the attempted ruling "dated and sexist."
These pushes for the feminization of female athletes has been balanced out in recent weeks by the ongoing discussion on the incorporation of Muslim headscarves, or 'hijabs', into Olympic uniforms. The Iranian women's soccer team was disqualified from competition in 2011 for donning the headscarves, but FIFA recently lifted the ban in time for the London games.
"There was a lot of disgust among the female athletes who compete in [badminton and boxing] because they felt they were being valued for their looks as opposed to their athletic ability, and any time that happens with a top athlete, you know that's going to anger them. So it is a problem, and nobody makes these comments about men; nobody tries to sexualize the male athletes or say they should look more male when competing," Springer says. "It just seems patently unfair."
In the case of beach volleyball, bikinis actually do serve a purpose of utility, athletes of the sport say. "Not a single one said that wearing a bikini made them feel sexy, but what they did say was that it was the most practical uniform for the sport in which they were competing," Springer says. Sand from the court gets everywhere, the athletes told her, and wearing shorts and a t-shirt would make for extremely uncomfortable play.