Updated: May 31
Gymnastics - the sport of poise and precision, seemingly full of glitz and glamour. There is no doubt that the sport is set leaps and bounds apart from other highly contested sporting events when it comes to the way it is described in the media. After all, the only way sports such as running would be referred to as ‘sparkling’ would be in reference to the visible sweat glittering from the athlete's pores whilst in action. Up until now, the so-called ‘traditional’ uniform of such female gymnasts has been that of brightly coloured leotards and eccentric diamantes. Now, however, Germany can be seen to be paving the way for a new generation of gymnastic athletes through the women's team's ‘unconventional’ choice in outfits showcased at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
The Tokyo 2020 gymnasts protest the sexualisation of the sport by wearing unitards. Photo: Supriyo Sarkar via Facebook
German gymnast Sarah Voss – who ignited the movement within the German team – admitted that she first began to feel “increasingly uncomfortable” in the sport as she began to reach puberty, having had to contend with the requirement of wearing revealing leotards in order to fulfil the demanding aesthetic of the sport.
Voss competing in 2017. Photo: Martin Rulsch via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
Her compatriot Elizabeth Seitz was one of the many supporters of Voss’ notion within the female gymnastics team, noting that they often trained in one-piece leotards, therefore calling into question why the same could not be done in competition.
The International Gymnastics Federation states that the wearing of unitards is allowed, so long as they are of elegant design. Up until the current Olympic games, however, this style of leotard had only ever been worn for religious reasons. This raises the prominent question of why appearance should matter when competing in such a complex and intricate sport – is this really what ‘artistic’ in ‘artistic gymnastics’ should stand for?
The German Federation stood behind the plea from their female gymnasts to choose comfort over following the typical conventions their predecessors had previously chosen to fashion within the sport. They further noted that by opting to wear one-piece leotards, they too had chosen to take a stand against “sexualisation” and the growing number of publicly known cases of sexual misconduct in gymnastics.
To serve as role models for young girls wanting to get into the sport, amongst mounting concerns surrounding the volume of sexual abuse within gymnastics, was just one of the many motivations for the teams’ decision. In an interview that was to change the perception of gymnastics forever, four-time American Olympic gold medallist Simone Biles openly detailed her story of abuse carried out by former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar, in 2018. Her story bravely serves as just one example of the many gymnasts who have openly spoken out about their sexual abuse within the sport.
Biles competing in a unitard at Rio 2016. Photo: Fernando Frazão via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0
For spectators of gymnastics wanting to witness the beauty and elegance of every tumble and routine, behind the scenes lies a very alternate and ugly truth – a truth which Germany is helping to highlight with all the grace and decorum expected of gymnasts on an Olympic stage. The narratives of gymnasts such as Biles have no doubt ignited the demand for greater care of athletes from all sporting backgrounds, but the torch highlighting these important issues continues to shine brightly by those who continue to make a stand.