A Line in the Sand

Norway’s women’s-handball team made news at the Tokyo Olympics not so much for its athletic prowess but for what it was wearing. A look at the legal intricacies of an increasingly fraught topic.

Norway's Handball Team Uniform Controversy
Susan H. Abramovitch

Susan H. Abramovitch and Phedely Artiste

February 4, 2022 07:00 AM

This article was originally published on 9/23/21 and was updated on 2/3/22

Of all the pandemic-delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games’ legal and public-relations issues— contract renegotiations with sponsors, networks and Olympic entities; doping bans; fans demanding ticket refunds—one of the biggest headline grabbers was a brouhaha over female athletes’ sporting attire.

The topic arose before the Games had even begun. On July 18, 2021, five days ahead of the opening ceremony, Norway’s beach-handball team was sanctioned for wearing athletic shorts instead of the required bikini bottoms at the bronze-medal match at this year’s European Beach Handball Championship against Spain in Bulgaria the day before. In light of the team’s deliberate stance against the dress code, the Disciplinary Commission of the European Handball Federation (EHF) reacted by issuing fines of €150 to each of the team’s 10 players.

The EHF had justified its disciplinary measure after Bulgaria by citing the athletes’ “improper clothing,” pursuant to the International Handball Federation (IHF) Rules. Under “Athlete Uniform Regulations,” the Federation Rules stipulate that Team members must wear identical shorts/bikini bottoms [. . .]. Female athletes must wear bikini bottoms that are in accordance with the enclosed graph, with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg. The side width must be of a maximum of 10 centimetres.

The fines triggered an avalanche of controversy among international fans, the public at large, athletes and sporting organizations—including the Norwegian Handball Federation, which openly supported the athletes. Several parties expressed their frustration at the enforcement of outdated rules regarding women’s athletic attire, which deprive women of the right to meaningfully compete in a respectful and fair environment.

The EHF then issued another statement to underline that, although the fines were appropriate given the Federation Rules, it vowed to do “all [it] can to ensure that a change of athlete uniform regulations can be implemented.”

Legal Recourse

The Norwegian women have two potential, non–mutually exclusive options. The first is to appeal the fines. The second involves lobbying the governing body to amend or repeal current Federation Rules on female athletes’ uniforms altogether.

Appealing the fines: EHF regulations grant athletes the right to appeal a Disciplinary Commission decision—but they must do so no later than 8 p.m. local time the same day the decision is issued. This option has long since lapsed. It’s also worth noting that the request to appeal must be accompanied by a €1,000 fee paid by the appellants to the EHF. In light of the Norwegians having already been fined a team total of €1,500, an appeal was perhaps not a viable option, if only from a financial perspective.

In the event the appeal was granted, it would be directed to a Jury, which is charged with reaching a decision by simple majority. That decision would then have to be announced to the parties no later than 9 a.m. local time the day after the appeal was filed. The Jury comprises three members and two substitute members recruited from among the EHF officials at the venue and nominated by the EHF before the tournament began.

Norway’s beach handball team was sanctioned for wearing athletic shorts instead of the required bikini bottoms at the bronze-medal match at this year’s European Beach Handball Championship.”

Amendment or repeal of Federation Rules: Again, the EHF defended itself by noting that it issued its fines in accordance with International Handball Federation Rules. Athletes’ dress code therefore falls under the jurisdiction of the international body of the sport at issue. Advocating for modification of the rules at the level of the IHF would presumably be a more permanent solution, and Norway’s Handball Federation has advocated for substantial change in this aspect of women’s sports for several years.

On April 23 and 24, three months before the Tokyo Games began, the EHF Congress was held in Vienna, Austria, at which the Norwegian Handball Federation tabled a motion addressing women’s uniforms. The discussion was postponed and scheduled to be held in August with the newly elected Beach Handball Commission. The discussion’s purpose was to prepare suggestions to be presented to the IHF, the world body with ultimate jurisdiction and authority to modify the uniform regulations.

To date, no motion has officially been tabled to the IHF. As such, the regulation mandating bikini bottoms for female beach-handball players remains in force.

A Timely Discussion

Regarding regulation of athletes’ uniforms at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Section 2.3 of the Olympic Charter states that the National Olympic Committee of a given country is vested with the sole authority to prescribe and determine the clothing and uniforms worn by members of its delegation. However, under the Charter, the International Olympic Committee maintains for itself the authority of last resort on any questions or matters related to the Games.

As the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games dominated sports headlines this summer, the longstanding debate over uniforms and the agency of female athletes proved timely. Following the dust-up over the Norwegian women, several other incidents drew attention to the topic as well. During the Tokyo Games, Germany’s gymnasts competed in red-and-white unitards, which provide more body coverage than the more commonly worn leotard. The German Gymnastics Federation introduced this apparel with the aim of countering the sexualization of the sport and enhancing women’s agency. On July 18, meanwhile, Welsh Paralympic track-and-field world champion Olivia Breen was reprimanded by an English Championship official for wearing sprint briefs deemed “too short and inappropriate.”

All these incidents have brought significant attention to the sometimes-extraordinary scrutiny of female competitors’ attire at national and international events. It’s difficult to predict the ultimate outcome here, but female athletes are unlikely to give up in their desire to have more say over what they’re required to wear. The Olympics themselves are over, but this tussle has only just begun.

Headline Image: Norwegian Handball Federation

Related Articles

Fierce Competition

by Amalia Berg and Jordan Scopa

Is jumping through legal hoops an Olympic event? It might as well be for any company seeking to sponsor an athlete, a team or the quadrennial games themselves.

Legal Sponsorships for the Olympic Games

The Sponsor Games

by Alasdair Muller and Nick Fitzpatrick

Brands looking to capture a little Olympic glory for themselves face a challenging legal course. Here’s an overview.

Legal Recourse for Olympics Branding

The Subsidy Solution

by Anton O. Petrov and Jan D. Bonhage

Major athletic events are great fun, sources of pride . . . and expensive. What are countries’ responsibilities, especially during the pandemic, to help ensure their survival?

Responsibilities of Olympic Host Countries

2021 Best Lawyers: The Global Issue

by Best Lawyers

The 2021 Global Issue features top legal talent from the most recent editions of Best Lawyers and Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch worldwide.

2021 Best Lawyers: The Global Issue

Champions of Change: Record Breaking LGBTQ Olympic Athlete Representation

by Rebecca Blackwell

LGBTQ Olympic Athletes Make History

All Doped Up

by Howard Rapke and Sarah Bryden

Keeping elite international sporting events free of banned substances is an endless game of cat and mouse. Here’s an overview of the legal efforts set up to do, in theory, exactly that.

Legal Efforts Against Drugs at Olympics

Current Status of Image Rights Structures in Spain

by Eduardo Montejo

Image Rights in Spain

Trending Articles

What the Courts Say About Recording in the Classroom

by Christina Henagen Peer and Peter Zawadski

Students and parents are increasingly asking to use audio devices to record what's being said in the classroom. But is it legal? A recent ruling offer gives the answer to a question confusing parents and administrators alike.

Is It Legal for Students to Record Teachers?

Choosing a Title Company: What a Seller Should Expect

by Roy D. Oppenheim

When it comes to choosing a title company, how much power exactly does a seller have?

Choosing the Title Company As Seller

Caffeine Overload and DUI Tests

by Daniel Taylor

While it might come as a surprise, the over-consumption of caffeine could trigger a false positive on a breathalyzer test.

Can Caffeine Cause You to Fail DUI Test?

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard: The Best Lawyers Honorees Behind the Litigation

by Gregory Sirico

Best Lawyers takes a look at the recognized legal talent representing Johnny Depp and Amber Heard in their ongoing defamation trial.

Lawyers for Johnny Depp and Amber Heard

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from Australia.

The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2023

Wage and Overtime Laws for Truck Drivers

by Greg Mansell

For truck drivers nationwide, underpayment and overtime violations are just the beginning of a long list of problems. Below we explore the wages you are entitled to but may not be receiving.

Truck Driver Wage and Overtime Laws in the US

The Real Camille: An Interview with Johnny Depp’s Lawyer Camille Vasquez

by Rebecca Blackwell

Camille Vasquez, a young lawyer at Brown Rudnick, sat down with Best Lawyers CEO Phillip Greer to talk about her distinguished career, recently being named partner and what comes next for her.

Camille Vasquez in office

How to Navigate False Abuse Claims in a Child Custody Case

by Ashley Jones

There’s hope for families to recover—a good lawyer is key.

False Abuse Claims in Child Custody

An Army of Nancy

by Rachel Shrewsbury

The horrific stories out of Guantánamo Bay nearly caused me to lose faith in the American principles of liberty and justice. Nancy Hollander turned out to be the ray of hope I was looking for.

Q&A with Nancy Hollander

Announcing The Best Lawyers in The United Kingdom™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from the United Kingdom.

The Best Lawyers in The United Kingdom 2023

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Japan™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from Japan.

The Best Lawyers in Japan™ 2023

“Best Law Firms” Submissions: What They Are and Why They Matter

by Best Lawyers

"Best Law Firms" rankings are produced yearly by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers. The submissions process is an important component for all eligible firms.

Best Law Firms Submissions

How Peer Review Powers Industry Referrals

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers combines the trust of industry referrals with state-of-the-art technology to help clients find the right lawyer.

Four people searching in their smartphone with the Best Lawyers methodology wheel over top

Announcing The Best Lawyers in France™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from France.

Blue, white and red strips

When DNA Isn’t the Tie That Binds

by Brittney M. Miller and James J. Vedder

Determining biological parenthood is as easy as getting a DNA test. Determining legal parenthood is more complicated altogether—especially as the composition of the American family continues to evolve.

When DNA isn't the tie that binds

Aim High and Fly

by Khalil Abdullah

From a silent victim of hometown segregation to Air Force captain and lawyer of consummate skill, Karen Evans exemplifies leadership—and vows always to help those who seek to follow her path.

Karen Evans' Leadership in the Airforce