When the European Championship began, the members of the Norwegian women’s beach handball team played in their standard uniforms: sports bras and bikini briefs that could not exceed 10 centimeters at the sides.
They played eight games in “panties,” as longtime team member Elisabeth Hammerstad refers to them, before they decided to rebel.
At their bronze-medal match on Sunday, once they’d qualified for the upcoming world championship, the Norwegian players ran onto the court in spandex shorts. It was an opportunity to make a statement, Hammerstad said. “We are athletes who just want to be playing our sport.”
For violating the rules of the International Handball Federation, the team was fined 1,500 euros, or about $1,770.
The European Handball Federation agreed to discuss uniform regulations at a meeting in August, after the Norwegian Handball Federation raised the issue at a meeting in April. “Both the European Handball Federation and the International Handball Federation are committed to popularising beach handball,” the EHF said in a statement. “All contributions in that respect and measures that will support the ambitions of this attractive sport are supported.” (The International Handball Federation did not respond to a request for comment.)
Like beach volleyball, beach handball is played on a sand court, often with music playing in the background. It’s fast-paced and a “really intense” full-body workout, Hammerstad said. An entire match lasts 20 minutes.
The Norwegian women’s beach handball team has been advocating for different uniforms for 15 years, Hammerstad said. It’s frustrating to see the difference between the women’s uniforms and those of the male players, who compete in tank tops and shorts, she said.
When you’re wearing a bikini, it’s harder to concentrate on the sport, Hammerstad said. “You have to be running, doing gymnastic moves.” Their uniforms could slip out of place. A photographer might capture an unflattering or revealing picture, which could circulate on social media.
As an athlete, Hammerstad said, you don’t want to be thinking about any of that.
“I don’t understand why we have to wear these kinds of clothes when it takes all the focus away from the sport that we love,” she said.
Their uniform also excludes those with different body types, Hammerstad said. Someone who is hesitant to wear a bikini might assume that beach handball is not for them. “But this is an inclusive sport, with lots of different roles that women can play,” she added.
In 2012, the International Volleyball Federation changed its uniform requirements for beach volleyball, offering several additional options, including a one-piece bathing suit or a shirt and shorts. After the guidelines changed, Egypt’s beach volleyball team competed at the Olympics in long-sleeved shirts and pants.
Given the choice, some players prefer the standard bikini briefs. “There are less places for sand to hide,” Corinne Calabro, the former communications director for USA Volleyball, told USA Today in 2016.
Kerri Walsh Jennings, who played beach volleyball on the U.S. team and won Olympic gold in 2004, 2008 and 2012, was a staunch defender of the bikini-brief uniform in 2016.
“When it comes to beach volleyball, we’re playing in 100-degree-plus weather,” she told HuffPost that year. “I think we’ve just gotta educate the public, take it with a grain of salt and make sure that we’re working hard and not playing up the sex appeal because it’s inherent anyway.”
Women who want to continue wearing bikini briefs should have that option, Hammerstad said. Either way, she said, it should be “a woman’s choice.” (Also, she added, in beach handball, sand will get under your clothes no matter what you wear.)
“It’s no secret” why the uniform regulations have been slow to change, Hammerstad said: Viewers enjoy watching women in skimpy outfits.
There is a deep-rooted idea that women’s sports aren’t as interesting to watch as men’s sports, because women aren’t as “good” at athletics as men are, said Cheryl Cooky, a professor of American studies at Purdue University who specializes in gender and athletics. To make women’s sports more popular, she said, people in athletic leadership have implemented these kinds of dress codes in sports such as beach volleyball, beach handball and gymnastics. While that notion is being challenged by people such as the members of the Norwegian beach handball team, she said, it has “a very strong foothold.”
“It’s about patriarchy and sexism,” Cooky said. “Let’s be real here.”
Skimpy clothes don’t seem to make a sport more popular, Cooky said. If they did, she said, beach volleyball would be the most-watched sport in the United States.
These uniform regulations are a way to force athletes to “better align with our cultural expectations for women,” Cooky said. Women on national athletic teams are “powerful and dominant, strong and competitive,” she said, descriptors that defy traditional norms of femininity. By making women play handball in bikinis, she said, the mostly male athletic federations are reminding viewers that women and men are fundamentally different, even at the highest levels of athletic competition.
Hammerstad is optimistic that the rules could change soon. The Norwegian Handball Federation has been supportive of the team’s efforts, she said, encouraging the players to defy the rules by wearing shorts and agreeing to cover the cost of the fine. The National Handball Teams of Norway wrote a message of support on Instagram on Tuesday.
Other teams have also been supportive, Hammerstad said. The women’s beach handball teams from Sweden, Denmark and France all backed their decision. Sweden’s coaches recently asked permission for the teenagers on their junior team to wear shorts, Hammerstad said. They were denied.
“They are 16, 17, 18 years old,” she said. “It’s kind of disgusting that those girls have to play in these clothes.”
While Hammerstad is grateful for all the media coverage of this issue, she would love to read an article that focuses on her team’s stellar performance. Most articles only mention their world championship-qualifying success in a line at the very end, she said.
“We never get attention for our medals or how well we do,” she said. “In the media, it’s all about the panties.”