Modest and Feminine Sport Uniforms

Olympic sports wreath

The debate over modesty and femininity of uniforms for female athletes intensifies in the months leading up to each summer Olympics, as it has over the years since women began participating in the games in 1900 (only 12 women out of 1,330 athletes that first year). Up through the 1908 Olympics, female athletes still wore long skirts for the few events in which they were allowed to participate, shortened perhaps 4 to 6 inches from the traditional ankle length to allow for movement (

Swimming was opened to women in 1912, but American female athletes did not enter because their country still required them to wear long skirts for every event ( American female swimmers finally entered the Olympics in 1920, wearing wool knit tunic tops over tight pants, ending at various lengths on the thigh. In 1924, American swimmer Gertrude Ederle won three Olympics medals without a tunic, wearing a one-piece tank swimsuit with leg lines cut straight across the hips, parallel to the ground (

Attire for non-water sports remained conservative into the 1930s, and three-time American Olympic champion Sonja Henie (1928, 1932, 1936) shocked spectators when she became the first figure skater to raise her skirts above the knee. Though Henie pioneered short skirts in figure skating, other sports eventually surpassed figure skating for immodesty as women entered more events and pushed for streamlined uniforms to enhance speed. Competitive figure skating retained short skirts from Henie's time until that of German figure skater Katarina Witt, Olympic gold medalist in 1984 and 1988. Although Hollywood had been filming skimpy clothing for decades by this point, Witt stirred landmark controversy in the competition world with her costumes, some of which had no skirts at all. Necklines on competitive figure skating attire had begun to lower in the 1970s, but several of Witt's outfits introduced faux plunging necklines to as low as her waist. In 1983, she was also the first female skater to wear pants during competition, which invoked the displeasure of the judges who expected to see all the female skaters in skirts.

I remember watching Witt skate in the 1988 Olympics in a blue costume with high-cut legs and feathers in place of a skirt. The television commentators noted she had added feathers to help cover her hips in response to complaints from a previous performance of the same routine. As a result of the leg lines on that blue costume and Witt's previous competition routine in pants, the International Skating Union issued the "Katarina Rule" requiring female figure skaters to wear costumes with skirts "covering the hips and posterior." The rule was updated in 2004, allowing women to wear tights, trousers, or unitards in addition to skirts. In another nod to modesty, male figure skaters are still required to wear trousers and are prohibited from wearing tights. "Excessive decoration" is also banned, such as the blue feathers on Witt's outfit that could have detached and caused a fall.

Gymnastics enthusiasts know about the "Magnificent Seven," the seven-person United States Olympic Women's Gymnastics Team that won the first team gold for their nation in that event in 1996. What those of us who were around to actually watch that victory may remember were the high cut leg lines of the leotards of gymnasts from most nations including the U.S., requiring frequent, embarassing re-adjustment as the elastic failed to hold the material over the rear in place during all of their magnificent movements. Female gymnasts at the 2000 Olympics wore leotards with slightly lower leg cuts, perhaps as a result of reviewing video of the 1996 slippage. Previews of the current 2012 U.S. women's team reveal leotards with leg lines cut about as high as ever, leading me to hope that competition leotard elastics and fabrics have improved enough over the last decade to keep the outfits in place. A more modest cut would have been such a simple solution and would not interfere with movement. (Update: congratulations to U.S. women for gymnastics team gold and 4 individual medals! And yes, the slipping is minimal, but I still vote for a return to practical leotard leg cuts like those worn by Nadia Comaneci for her legendary 1976 Olympics performances that earned seven perfect 10 scores, the first in history.)

At least one word of good news comes from part one of The Influence of Fashion report from the University of Massachusetts that documents the decline in modesty of modern Olympic uniforms, citing the need for freedom of movement as leading to skin-baring styles. A comment at the end of the report notes, "Interestingly, with the advanced stretch textiles available today, athletes are beginning to cover up again" (page 103). We have seen this especially in the swimming events, with athletes turning to full body suits made from advanced fibers that decrease friction in the water.

The debate over modesty and femininity of uniforms for female athletes in the 2012 Olympics has centered around the beach volleyball, badminton and boxing events. In beach volleyball, women have apparently been required by the international dress code to wear bikinis, which was news to me when it made headlines this spring, as I am not a volleyball fan. In response to petitions from female Olympic hopefuls in Muslim nations, the Federation Internationale de Volleyball changed the rules on March 18, 2012, to allow beach volleyball participants to wear shorts as long as 1.8 inches above the knee and sleeved or sleeveless tops. For those of us who appreciate modesty, this appearance would be a welcome relief. The rules still allow bikinis though, and most of the competitors who are accustomed to baring so much skin have, alas, told news reporters that they do not plan to make any change. (Update: the cool London temperatures have driven most female competitors to wear long tights and long-sleeved shirts, anyway, in contradiction to their bold statements.) Since the Muslims deserve the credit for sparking the volleyball uniform rule change, one must wonder why the female athletes who claim to be Christians have not also taken a stand, since New Testament teaching that is the foundation of the Christian faith teaches that ". . . women are to dress in suitable apparel, with modesty and self-control" (I Timothy 2:9, NET Bible).

The international badminton and boxing federations both played with the idea of requiring (in badminton) or recommending (in boxing) that their female athletes wear skirts for competitions including the 2012 Olympics. For boxing in particular, an Olympic event which has opened to women for the first time this year, it can be difficult to distinguish whether competitors are male or female due to the headgear that is worn. Skirts help identify a boxer's gender to viewers flipping through television channels. (If you are wondering why any woman would want to compete in boxing, I share your sentiment.) The badminton federation apparently had a different motive, to enhance "aesthetic and stylish presentation" of female players. However, the idea that women should be asked to wear gender-specific clothing received so much criticism from athletes and observers that the proposals were dropped (espn.go). We have come a long way since 1900, when women's skirted sporting uniforms were viewed as a continuation of the unique differences of females from males, not as a threat to the value of femininity.

When the definition of modesty is considered, that of being humble and moderate in attitude and action, the Olympic Games are not structured around that concept. Elite athletes aim to be recognized as better than everyone else. Sure, we find elements of sportsmanship and dedication to training that inspires us. Behind the scenes, however, elite athletes push themselves so hard to win that they compete, with few exceptions, under pain and injury. Young female athletes are sometimes stunted in their physical development, and disruption of hormonal patterns is common from the demands of world-class training. Many female athletes require surgery later in life to improve mobility after the pounding of 150,000 vaults, for example (gymnast Mary Lou Retton's hip replacement at age 37), or innumerable landings on ice (Michelle Kwan's hip surgery at age 26). Perhaps our Olympic ancestors who restricted women's participation a hundred years ago with the motive of preserving the delicacy of their frames compared to men's were smarter than we thought (

Training to be a champion also requires athletes to wear immodest apparel that they may not have personally chosen if they had not been pressured into the mold of their sport. I am glad that my parents discouraged me from pursuing a career as an athlete, although that was one of my girlhood desires after doing well in several sports in my youth. As an adult, I still enjoy exercise almost daily that keeps me fit and flexible, and I respect women who choose to make athletics a major part of their lives. My hope for young female athletes, especially those who acknowledge God's design for women, is that they would guide their pursuit of physical excellence by unshakable standards of modesty and femininity, characteristics that are more valuable than any medal.

Image courtesy of Open Clip Art