London 2012 Olympics: Does beach volleyball need the bikini?

In one women's beach volleyball semifinal amid a driving rain at the London 2012 Olympics Tuesday, neither team wore just their bikinis. What women wear has been a big issue here. 

By , Staff writer

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    April Ross (l.) and Jennifer Kessy celebrate defeating Brazil's Juliana and Larissa during their women's beach volleyball semifinal match at Horse Guards Parade during the London 2012 Olympic Games Tuesday.
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Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor will try for their third consecutive gold medal in beach volleyball Wednesday when they face fellow Americans April Ross and Jen Kessy in the final at the London 2012 Olympics

Now that that's out of the way, can we talk about what they were wearing? In the semifinal between Ross/Kessy and Brazilians Larissa and Juliana, neither team wore just their bikinis on a cold London night with driving rain, prompting International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge to promise a full investigation. "This is clearly not in the Olympic spirit," he said.  

OK, he didn't say that, and there is no inquiry. But in the sometimes alternate universe of beach volleyball, that it often what it feels like.

Recommended: 2012 Olympic quiz, Part II: Are you a gold medalist?

From head scarves to skirts, there has been a lot of talk at the London Olympics about what not to wear for women, but nowhere more so than at beach volleyball, where the decision earler this year to allow women not to wear bikinis has been met with relief by women's rights groups, dismay by some casual fans, and a gigantic shrug by the players themselves. 

It is the flip side to another and rather more momentous first at London 2012: Each competing nation has brought at least one woman athlete. To reach that goal, which the IOC made a high priority, the federations that govern Olympic sports have had to reach out to Muslim nations, and by doing so, the Olympic dress code has begun to change.  

Yet some tensions remain between sports' traditions and their desire to expand women's participation.

Velcro headscarves

Before the London Games even began, the International Judo Federation banned head scarves, saying they were too dangerous in a sport where athletes grapple by grabbing each other's clothes and can win by means of a choke hold. The problem was that one of Saudi Arabia's two woman athletes – their first two woman athletes in Olympic history – was a judoka.

Eventually, a compromise was struck and the Saudi judoka was allowed to wear a modified head scarf. The international body governing soccer recently allowed players to wear a similar head scarf that has velcro fastenings and can tear away if pulled inadvertently. Taekwondo, fencing, and rugby also allow such head scarves. 

The problems with beach volleyball, however, went far beyond head scarves. Before a March rule change, women had to wear a bikini, though they could wear a body suit beneath it when the weather was cold (which is what the Brazilians did Tuesday). Now, they can wear shorts, as well as the sleeved tops that Americans April Ross and Jen Kessy wore Tuesday.

At the 2006 Asian Games, only one Muslim country fielded a women's beach volleyball team, and they were two Christians from Iraq

Bikini ads

The old rule was the cause of much criticism from outside groups, which called it a blatant attempt to trade on the sexuality of the players. A British pair did nothing to dispel that notion last year when they sold advertising space on their bikini bottoms – putting a QR code there that, when photographed by a smartphone, led to a betting website.  

At times, the Great Bikini Debate has overshadowed the sport itself. The first question at a pre-Games press conference with the British pair was: "Will you promise you will wear bikinis even if it rains?"

The airline Virgin Atlantic even vowed in a press release to "come to the rescue of red-blooded males across the UK by offering to provide banks of patio heaters around the courts … so that competing beauties will continue to wear bikini bottoms."

Who could take offense at a statement like that?

Not the "beauties," actually. To the Americans, at least, the bikini is a uniform as much as a leotard or a judoka's judogi. 

"I'm most comfortable in a bikini," said Kessy before the Olympics began. "I grew up in southern California, so this is what I grew up wearing."

But she added: "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." 

To teammate Ross, it's all irrelevant. "I could care less what we wear when we play."

On Tuesday night in the rain, she and Kessy were the best possible promotion for that opinion. She and Kessy upset the Brazilians in a thrilling three-set match to advance to the finals against Walsh and May-Treanor.   

In what could become one of the images of the London Games for the US, Ross and Kessy, overcome with emotion, lay on the sand after the match, hugging each other in delirious disbelief – clothed in long-sleeved shirts that would have been illegal a year ago.

Call it the reverse Brandi Chastain sports bra moment – a night when beach volleyball did just fine without its bikinis, thanks.  

Recommended: 2012 Olympic quiz, Part II: Are you a gold medalist?
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