Bikinis serve greater purpose at Games

April 12, 2012

The most eye-opening thing I’ve read online this week didn’t involve Ozzie Guillen, Bobby Petrino or Facebook buying Instagram for a billion dollars. It was about the American media’s fascination with and coverage devoted to women’s bodies. And it was written by . . . Ashley Judd.

Yes, Ashley Judd.

In this revealing column written for The Daily Beast, the actress analyzes a career spent obsessing about, then ultimately ignoring, the media’s coverage of her own physical appearance. It’s a fascinating read, and one that concludes with Judd writing:

“Consequently, I choose to address it because the conversation was pointedly nasty, gendered, and misogynistic and embodies what all girls and women in our culture, to a greater or lesser degree, endure every day, in ways both outrageous and subtle. The assault on our body image, the hypersexualization of girls and women and subsequent degradation of our sexuality as we walk through the decades, and the general incessant objectification is what this conversation allegedly about my face is really about.”


Judd’s passionate take on the subject made me think about girls in bikinis.

I’ve always been a fan of girls in bikinis, and I don’t suspect I’m alone. Whether it be a Beach Boys album cover or a “Mad Men”-esque Mennen aftershave ad from the ‘50s, the image of a woman in a bikini has been a part of American pop culture since, well, the dawn of American pop culture. The bikini has survived the test of time, and for better or for worse, it is somewhere in between apple pie and the motorcycle when it comes to iconic slices of Americana.

Warhol’s soup cans. Wood’s “American Gothic.” Brooklyn Decker emerging out of the ocean in nothing but a yellow piece of string in a bad Adam Sandler film. Ain’t that America?

Or something like that.

But not every country has a place for the girl in the bikini and not all cultures permit it, making a sport that requires wearing one awfully difficult for athletes representing those nations.

The International Olympic Committee had an interesting decision to make last month in regards to the bikini and the women’s beach volleyball competition at the 2012 Summer Games. In wanting to expand the sport to all possible participating nations — including ones that typically forbid women to wear bikinis — the IOC passed a rule that gave participants in this summer's women’s beach volleyball competition the option to wear shorts and sleeved tops instead of the typical bikini uniform that’s been the norm since the Olympics went back to the beach.

Women’s beach volleyball athletes have exclusively worn bikinis in the Games since the sport became an official Olympic sport at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. In cold-weather events, bodysuits have been permitted, but for a Summer Games, last month’s announcement marked a landmark ruling for the sport. According to the new rule, “shorts of a maximum length of (1.18 inches) above the knee, and sleeved or sleeveless tops," will now be allowed, as well.

The IOC is looking to expand its participants in all sports, and with the new bikini rule, several nations that otherwise would have had no place on the beach volleyball court can now bump, set and spike on an equal playing field.

But is that playing field necessarily equal?

The rule change made headlines for women’s rights and cultural reasons, but there is an interesting sports story, here, too. The bikini-clad athletes will have a significant playing advantage over those wearing the long shorts and sleeves. The women’s beach volleyball bikini, like a high-top sneaker in basketball or a superior swimsuit in the pool, has been constructed to provide the optimal athletic experience.

There’s a reason female volleyball players wear bikinis, and it’s not because of vanity or fashion.

It’s because they work.

And now, some athletes will be wearing them while others won’t? In the Olympics? It’s a tricky situation.

Team USA star Kerri Walsh, along with teammate Misty May-Treanor, will continue to wear bikinis.

In a Sports Illustrated podcast earlier this week, Walsh said: “I’ve played in a bikini for a very specific reason and it’s that it’s most comfortable. I’ve worked really hard with Oakley to get a really good suit that I’m not worried about wardrobe malfunctions, and it’s really sporty.”

A USA Today article on the subject noted, “Players say they prefer the beachwear because it allows them free movement and the minimal material leaves less room for sand to get into their clothing and cause chafing.”

"It's something I feel empowered by, not distracted with,” Walsh added. “I'm not a sex symbol; I'm an athlete. I want to be streamlined out there."

Which leads me back to the IOC’s ruling.

If wearing a bikini — one that’s been shaped and formed to provide the optimal skill level required to excel in volleyball — serves as a significant advantage over a uniform requiring sleeves and a long shorts, is it at least worth considering a rule change requiring all women’s beach volleyball teams to wear the latter?

Or is that going backward? Is that ignoring both technology and women's and national/cultural rights?

Furthermore, is that minimizing what women like Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, and Gabrielle Reece and Monique Oliver before them, have worked so hard to accomplish — making women’s beach volleyball as respected a sport as any other competition in the Summer Games?

Would changing the rule to make standard-issued uniforms include sleeves make the bikini — and not the world-class athletes — the story? What would it say about the actual women participating? And would that rule change spark a negative reaction among non-Muslim nations who'd view the switch as an attack on those nations' political and spiritual beliefs?

I’m not sure anyone has the answers to all, if any, of those questions.

But I do know it’s going to look awfully strange seeing one team wearing wardrobes that give them a clear athletic advantage over their opponents in an Olympic sport. I'd imagine it wouldn't go over particularly well with a casual male viewing audience used to beach volleyball as portrayed in beer commercials and old "Baywatch" episodes.

What would the public’s reaction be to women’s beach volleyball players no longer in their bikinis?

I think back to Judd’s piece, I think about Walsh’s comments about being athletes, not sex symbols, and I think of the snark and, quite frankly, the potential outrage that would be the result of a universal uniform change to the sport.

The bikini! Who knew it could be so complicated?

There are several intersecting themes, here: women’s rights, marketing dollars, media perception and treatment of female athletes, an even playing field in the Olympics and political, religious and cultural values from a host of intersecting nations.

I’ve always been a fan of girls in bikinis. But this summer in London, the bikini could be more than just a piece of clothing.

It could make for a very spirited discussion topic.

As if it weren't one already.