| LONDON, July 29
LONDON, July 29 Say the words "beach volleyball"
and you can be sure that someone will make a joke about scantily
British media coverage of the sport in the run-up to the
Olympics focused on the question of whether the women players
would wear bikinis if it rained. The clear implication was that
if they covered up, the game would lose much of its appeal.
On the face of it, such attitudes place women athletes in a
lose-lose situation. They have to be sexy to get noticed but
they are not taken seriously as sportswomen because they are
But top women players say they are comfortable in their
bikinis. They love the beach culture that gave birth to their
sport, and they take pride in their athletic physiques.
"The female body is a masterpiece. Everyone likes to look at
the female body, especially in dynamic, athletic sport," said
Natalie Cook, gold medallist at Sydney in 2000 and Australia's
first woman athlete in any sport to compete in five Olympics.
Her achievements would be enough to earn respect, even
reverence, in most sports, but Cook still gets asked bikini
questions. Does that not bother her?
"I'm OK with it. It's the only sport where the women
dominate. If it starts with the bikini, fine," she told Reuters.
"I believe it shows the best side of the female body and I'm
proud of how we look in it."
A fast-paced game in which teams of two jump, run and dive
in the sand, making tactical decisions in a split second as they
spike the ball over the net or block a powerful attack with
their outstretched palms, beach volleyball is a great spectacle.
It does not take itself too seriously. Pop music blares from
loudspeakers in between points and during the players' breaks
spectators are entertained by dancers in beachwear.
The top women players do not seek to deny that the lure of
their sweating bodies in bikinis draws in audiences, generates
media interest and boosts advertising revenue.
Their response is: so what?
"This is how we look. This is how we are. What you see is
what you get. There's no hiding. There's no airbrushing here,"
said American Misty May-Treanor, who with her team mate Kerri
Walsh won Olympic gold in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008.
Most of the top players come from places such as Brazil,
California or Australia, where there is a strong beach culture
and wearing bikinis is normal. It is the practical choice for a
sport played barefoot in the sand and the heat, they say.
May-Treanor's website features a video of her in mid-workout
in her gym kit as well as photos of her posing suggestively in a
glamorous bathing suit. She see no incompatibility between the
sport's sexy image and the tough physical work it involves.
"There's a lot of hard work that goes into what we do. I do
a lot of power lifting and weight lifting," she said.
A woman who in 2008 persuaded then U.S. President George W.
Bush to slap her lower back in the way the players do after
points, she is not one to shy away from macho banter.
"If someone says something I'm like, ah, whatever, they
don't really realise what goes into it. If they want to arm
wrestle, I'll get clothed and we can go lift weights in the
weight room," she said.
Brazilian world champion Juliana Felisberta, a favourite for
gold in London, seems to embrace sexually charged humour with as
much gusto as she approaches high-level competition.
During a pre-Games news conference, Felisberta spoke
passionately about her dream of a showdown against May-Treanor
in the Olympic final, while also cracking multiple jokes about
which players, male and female, had the best bodies.
"It's a really interesting sport and the players have
beautiful bodies," the plain-speaking Felisberta said.
But many women outside the sport are incensed by how the
sporting prowess is trivialised by constant sexual innuendo.
"Olympics discussion on (a radio programme) mentioned beach
volleyball bikinis AGAIN - we are now officially living in
1950s," Martha Lane Fox, a successful British Internet
entrepreneur, said on Twitter this week.
At a protest in London on Wednesday against gender
discrimination in sport, delegates said it turned women into sex
"They are using women's bodies as sex. It is all about
money. It makes women look like objects and it is a clear case
of sexism," said Annie Sugier, spokeswoman for the International
League for Women's Rights.
But as far as the women athletes are concerned, sexism is in
the eye of the beholder. They say that people may come for the
bikinis but they will stay for the sport.
"Once they see the athleticism of our sport they're hooked
on it," said April Ross, a U.S. rival to May-Treanor.
The sport's governing body, the FIVB, opened itself up to
criticism for years by making bathing suits compulsory for women
players during tournaments, except in cold weather.
The rules changed in March and women are now allowed to wear
shorts with tops or a full body suit. The FIVB said this was to
respect different customs and religious beliefs.
"We want women of all different religions and everyone from
across the world to be able to play our sport, and to not be
able to play because of the attire is not OK for us," said
Jennifer Kessy, Ross's team mate.
"We wouldn't be playing in shorts because for us it's not
comfortable but for others we think it's great," Kessy said.
Ross and Kessy once played at a tournament in Dubai, where
they wore bikinis during matches but long modest dresses on the
medal podium. They said it was a strange experience, but they
felt positive about bringing a taste of Californian beach
culture to the conservative Gulf.
Australia's Cook said she was perplexed by the focus on the
bikinis given the outfits on display in other sports.
"The track and field stars run in a bikini. It's a little
bit bigger, but it's a bikini," she told Reuters.
May-Treanor also saw inconsistencies in attitudes to sports.
"It's funny because people look at our sport in that manner
when you have gymnasts that are 14, 15, the camera angles
sometimes on these events, and they're in leotards. And you have
divers in Speedos," she said.
But whatever the reason for the fuss over bikinis,
May-Treanor could see the bright side.
"All the work we're putting in must be paying off because if
they're so (interested in) what we're wearing it's like, yeah,
we must have awesome bodies," she said, bursting out laughing.
(Additional reporting by Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by Alison