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Full-body suits of German gymnasts spark a heated debate at Tokyo Olympics

German gymnast Sarah Voss (Image courtesy: Twitter/@SarahVo46143738)

When German gymnast Sarah Voss walked out to perform at the European Championships in Switzerland's Basel this April, she kicked off a movement which would become a big talking point at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games a few months later. The 21-year-old presented her exercises on the balance beam and jump for the first time in a long-legged, full-body unitard instead of the usual bikini-cut leotard. "Feel good and still look elegant, why not?" she wrote in an Instagram post immediately after. 

The German Gymnastics Federation saw the step as the first important building block in order to "strengthen the well-being of all athletes" in gymnastics and to create an open culture with regard to the wearing of competition clothing.

"Gymnastics is characterized by strength, expression and aesthetics. This is reflected not only in the elements and poses, but also in the clothing. It also includes elements in which the athletes spread their legs or straddle, which, especially in the short-cut leotards, makes girls and women feel uncomfortable," the federation had said while supporting Voss.  

The strong message against sexualization in the sport was delivered loud and clear yet again, this time from the world's biggest sporting stage.  

On Sunday, at Tokyo's Ariake Gymnastics Centre, Voss and the rest of the German gymnastics team once again wore full-length unitards during the Olympic qualifying event, drawing the world attention and also creating a buzz on the social media platforms.

Germany Tokyo 2020 Olympics

German gymnast Sarah Voss (right) during the 9th European Men's and Women's Artistic Gymnastics Individual Championships held in Basel, Switzerland, earlier this year (Image courtesy: Instagram/Sarah.Vossi)

Even though the rules set for Women's Artistic Gymnastics by the International Gymnastics Federation allowed wearing a "correct sportive non transparent leotard or unitard (one piece leotard with full length legs-hip to ankle), which must be of elegant design" with complete leg coverings of the same color as that of the leotard, some gymnasts had till now avoided wearing short sleeve leotard purely because of religious reasons.

As the spotlight remained on the Germans at the Games which is seeing a record participation of female athletes, the Olympic Broadcasting Services and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made it clear on Monday that "Sport appeal, not sex appeal" is what they are focusing on to raise awareness and call for gender-equal and fair representation of sportspeople across all forms of media and communication.

"As broadcasters we do not give directives about what the athletes should wear. What we can do is to make sure our coverage does not highlight or feature in any particular way what people are wearing and whether the clothes they are wearing highlight particular parts of the body that have to do with stereotypes," Yiannis Exarchos, Olympic Broadcasting Services CEO and Olympic Channel Executive Director, was quoted as saying by the news agency Reuters. 

The IOC, which had in 2018 released 'Portrayal Guidelines' to ensure a fair and gender-balanced coverage, said that it had published a new edition ahead of Tokyo 2020 Games.

"Two weeks of Olympic coverage are a unique opportunity to generate new strong, positive and diverse role models, and to promote balanced coverage and fair portrayal of sportspeople in all their diversity – irrespective of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or socio-economic status," the IOC said on Monday.

The new set of guidelines specifically call for the implementation of "gender-equal and fair portrayal practices in all forms of communication" across the Olympic Games and throughout the Olympic Movement, in line with the new IOC Gender Equality and Inclusion Objectives for 2021-2024.

They also underline the importance of gender-balanced portrayal and provide new examples, best practices and tips from the various sectors, from the language (words and expressions) and imagery used to the quality, quantity and prominence of coverage.

Tokyo 2020 Games

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