LONDON (Reuters) - Say the words “beach volleyball” and you can be sure that someone will make a joke about scantily clad women.
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 sexy.
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 medalist 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 realize 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 favorite for gold in London, seems to embrace sexually charged humor 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 trivialized by constant sexual innuendo.
“Olympics discussion on (a radio program) 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 objects.
“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 Williams