Why Do So Many Female Athletes Compete in Bikini-Style Uniforms?

Kerri Walsh Jennings during a match against Brazil at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Kerri Walsh Jennings during a match against Brazil at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. / Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the European Handball Federation fined Norway’s women’s beach handball team for competing in shorts rather than bikini briefs. According to The New York Times, the International Handball Federation mandates bikini-style bottoms for female players, while men are allowed to wear “not too baggy” shorts that hit four inches above the knee. The organization is now investigating those rules, though the Norwegian women’s team has reportedly been complaining about them for the past 15 years.

They’re not lobbying to do away with bikini bottoms in the sport altogether—they’re just arguing against being forced to wear them. In fact, plenty of female athletes, especially in beach sports like handball and volleyball, opt for less coverage. This is partially because they’re often playing in hot weather, and also because they’re playing on sand.

“Playing in a one-piece was never comfortable for me,” beach volleyball player Jennifer Kessy, who won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics, told TODAY. “It was restricting and limited my movements—imagine diving chest first and lodging more sand than you care to think down the front of your suit. You can’t keep it in there and it is not easy to get out. I found myself adjusting my one piece all the time and while it was embarrassing, sure, it also took my focus off the match I was playing. I started looking at my bikini as my competition suit, kind of like track and field.”

Female track and field athletes aren’t required to compete in bikini briefs, either, but many are most comfortable doing so because it’s what they’re used to. British Paralympian Olivia Breen recently spoke out after a female official criticized her briefs for being inappropriately short: “I have been wearing the same style sprint briefs for many years and they are specifically designed for competing in,” she wrote on social media.

In short, more clothing can be more distracting than less, either because you’re playing in hot, sandy conditions or because too much material feels constricting. But if you, like the Norwegian women’s handball team, would prefer to compete in long shorts, you shouldn’t be fined for it.