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Perspective

At Olympics, it’s time to focus on sports, not sex appeal

Kali Ciesemier

SWIFTER, HIGHER, STRONGER . . . SEXIER.

This is the Olympic motto some sports leaders seem to prefer. Leading up to the London Games, the international governing bodies of boxing and badminton dictated that female athletes should wear skirts in competition. Why? Because, as the Badminton World Federation deputy president suggested, skirts would increase the sport’s appeal to male viewers. (This is far from new thinking: In 2004, the world’s top soccer executive infamously encouraged female soccer players to wear more revealing uniforms to attract fans with “a more feminine aesthetic.”)

As much as it may anger female athletes and female sports fans, these guys have a point. Sexier uniforms typically increase a sport’s popularity, especially among the coveted demographic of men ages 18 to 34. The average WNBA game is watched by 270,000 basketball fans, while millions tuned in to a football competition called Lingerie Bowl IX in February. And let’s be honest, women’s beach volleyball — apparently introduced at the Atlanta games at the urging of NBC — is one of the hottest tickets in London for reasons beyond high-flying play.

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But despite a worldwide television audience in the billions, the Olympics should be held to a higher standard than the commercial concerns of professional sports. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics, envisioned a celebration of competition in its purest form. While pro athletes have replaced amateurs and corporate money has changed the financial stakes, the field of play should remain focused on that core ideal. The Games should showcase the world’s best athletes at the peak of their abilities, and that means team uniforms should be about practicality and performance, not eye candy.

“The Olympics is a platform to show we’re real athletes,” says US beach volleyball player Jen Kessy, who prefers a bikini not for style reasons, but because it collects less sand. “Walking out there in a bikini, trust me, I don’t feel sexy. I am mean. I am tough.” Olympic boxers and badminton players should be worried about winning gold, not what they’re wearing.

Today, 112 years after women first competed in the Games and 40 years after Title IX legislated equal opportunity for US women in sports, the modern Olympic movement offers an opportunity to make meaningful changes as the world watches.

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Consider Saudi Arabia. Not surprisingly, the kingdom that prohibits women from driving and from working or traveling without a man’s permission has never let a woman compete in the Olympics. But under pressure from human rights groups and the International Olympic Committee, Saudi Arabia finally lifted its ban in June and will send two female athletes to London.

Talk to American female Olympians who compete in the Middle East and they see how women’s sports, how their participation, inspires young girls. “I’ve seen a big change there,” says sprinter Allyson Felix, who started racing in Doha, Qatar, in 2005. “Of course, it’s not anywhere where it needs to be, but it’s progressing. It’s really cool to see girls excited about competing.” Clearly, wardrobe changes rooted in sexism miss the bigger point.

In the wake of bad press and athlete complaints, boxing and badminton officials recently came to their senses. In London, female athletes will be allowed to wear shorts or skirts. Plus, the Australian women’s basketball team ditched their much ogled skintight bodysuits from Beijing for more traditional loose-fitting uniforms.

In March, women’s beach volleyball OK’d more modest dress, permitting players to wear shorts and sleeved tops out of respect for athletes whose religious and cultural beliefs clashed with bikinis. Beach volleyball officials say they want their sport accessible to more female participants the world over. Now that’s a goal in step with the spirit of the Olympic Games.

Shira Springer is a Globe reporter. E-mail her at springer@globe.com.
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