TOKYO — The Tokyo Olympics could go down in history as the Games in which female athletes slammed the door on competing in skimpy outfits.
So far, German gymnasts, inspired by the Norwegian beach handball players, have led the way at these Games by scrapping their traditional — and far more revealing — uniforms in favor of more modest, and some say more comfortable, performance gear.
And, experts say, that sorority of resistance is likely to grow at an Olympics like no other which are being held despite the Covid-19 pandemic — and at which female athletes have not been shy about using the world’s biggest sports event to speak out against racism and other social issues.
“These Games are a turning point for women athletes to take control over arbitrary uniform requirements that have nothing to do with improving their participation, but are a form of controlling their bodies,” Kendra Gage, a gender and ethnic studies professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, wrote in an email to NBC News.
“The Tokyo Olympics is being celebrated for having the most gender-equal games; however, these athletes are showing us that there are still significant issues surrounding gender that aren’t fixed by just increasing numbers.”
Sarah Axelson of the Women’s Sports Foundation in New York City agreed.
“It is unfortunate that far too often, attention is paid more on how female athletes look, versus their power, grit and performance,” said Axelson, who is the organization’s vice president of advocacy.
The outfits female athletes don, she said, “should help athletes feel empowered to do their best, not overshadow their efforts and bring undue scrutiny.”
There is another reason why the issue of objectifying female athletes has taken on a new urgency at the Tokyo Olympics — these are the first Summer Games since the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor, Larry Nassar, was sent to prison for life for sexually abusing hundreds of female gymnasts, including some of the sports biggest stars such as Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and others.
And at Nassar’s sentencing, many of victims described how the sport’s culture enabled the objectification of girls and young women.
“There are a lot of people at USA Gymnastics who should never be allowed to work with children again,” Raisman later said.
But what the female athletes wear to compete in the Olympics has everything to do with the way society looks at women in general, Gage said.
“The issues that we see with women’s uniforms goes back to the very beginning of women’s participation in sports where there were larger societal fears that women would become unattractive and too masculine if they played a sport, so women’s uniforms were hyperfeminine to compensate,” she said.
Just before the 2012 London Olympics, for example, the Amateur International Boxing Association sparked international outrage by insisting that female boxers wear skirts instead of shorts, said David Wallechinsky, one of the founding members of the International Society of Olympic Historians.
The International Olympic Committee does not establish or enforce uniform regulations. That’s up to international federations for each individual sport and many of them are still run by men, Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, a professor at the University of Toronto and an expert on the Olympic Games, told France 24.
“Sports judged on aesthetics like figure skating have clothing rules consistent with judges’ often stereotypical views of what a ‘feminine’ skater should look like,” she said. “Women’s beach volleyball uniform regulations are based solely on heterosexual sex appeal.”
Case in point: the Norwegian beach handball team.
It was this group of plucky female athletes who struck the first blow against bikini bottoms earlier this month when they showed up at their sport’s Euro 2021 tournament in Bulgaria in thigh-length elastic shorts.
While the uniform for male beach handball competitors is shorts and tops, women are required to wear midriff-baring tops and bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg” and a maximum side width of 4 inches, according to International Handball Federation regulations.
“It’s not [appropriate clothing for] the activity when they are playing in the sand,” Norwegian Handball Federation President Kåre Geir Lio said.
The team was fined 1,500 Euros (about $1,700) for “improper clothing” and Pink, the singer, offered to pay the penalty.
“The European handball federation SHOULD BE FINED FOR SEXISM,” Pink tweeted. “Good on ya, ladies.”
Then, at the Games, four members of the German women’s gymnastics team, Sarah Voss, Pauline Schaefer-Betz, Elisabeth Seitz and Kim Bui, showed up for the qualifying round in full-length unitards instead of the bikini-cut leotards usually worn by female gymnasts.
When they unveiled the outfits earlier in April at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Switzerland, the German Gymnastics Federation declared the unitards sent a message “against sexualization in gymnastics.”
Voss said they were also striking a blow for comfort.
“To do splits and jumps, sometimes the leotards are not covering everything, sometimes they slip and that’s why we invented a new form of leotard so that everyone feels safe around competition and training,” she told the BBC.
“Some girls quit this beautiful sport (because of having to wear leotards), so that is why this is a great option for everyone to stay in the sport they love and don’t think about anything else about their body — just about their performance.”
The German women did not qualify for the finals, but in the eyes of their competitors they deserved a gold medal for gumption.
“I think it’s really cool that they have the guts to stand on such a huge arena and show girls from all over the world that you can wear whatever you want,” Norwegian gymnast Julie Erichsen said. “I applaud them for that.”
Not every gymnast opposes the bikini-cut style outfits.
Biles, who shocked the Olympic world this week by opting not to defend her all-around gold medal after pulling out of the team gymnastics final, said she prefers them because they lengthen the leg and make her appear taller. She’s 4 feet, 8 inches tall.
“But I stand with their decision to wear whatever they please and whatever makes them feel comfortable,” she told The Associated Press. “So if anyone out there wants to wear a unitard or leotard, it’s totally up to you.”
And that’s the point, the experts said.
“Selection of appropriate sport apparel is influence by many factors including performance considerations, medical and safety concerns, differences in body type,” Axelson said.
There are also cultural differences that come into play, with athletes from culturally conservative countries balk at competing in revealing outfits.
“We believe athletes should be afforded maximum flexibility in the choice of uniform fabrics and styles,” Axelson said.
Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather
A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.
The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.
“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.
The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.
In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.
Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.
“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”
The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.
“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”
Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.
More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.
Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.
Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.
The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.
So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.
Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.
“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”
Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park
A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.
The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.
He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.
The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.
The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.
“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”
Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.
The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.
House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight
House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.
The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.
The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.
The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.
Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.
“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”
It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.
The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.
However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.
Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.
Haley Talbot contributed.
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