Cries of Sexism Greet a Nike Olympic Reveal

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By Margaretd. Regina

Ever since the Norwegian women’s beach handball team made it known that they were required to wear teeny-tiny bikini bottoms for competition into a cause célèbre, a quiet revolution has been brewing throughout women’s sports. It’s one that questions received conventions about what female athletes do — or don’t — have to wear to perform at their very best.

It has touched women’s soccer (why white shorts?), gymnastics (why not a unitard rather than a leotard?), field hockey (why a low-cut tank top?) and many more, including running.

So it probably should not have come as a shock to Nike that when it offered a sneak peek of the Team U.S.A. track and field unies during a Nike Air event in Paris celebrating its Air technology on Thursday (which also included looks for other Olympic athletes, like Kenya’s track and field team, France’s basketball team and Korea’s break dancing delegation), they were met with some less-than-enthusiastic reactions.

See, the two uniforms Nike chose to single out on the mannequins included a men’s compression tank top and mid-thigh-length compression shorts and a woman’s bodysuit, cut notably high on the hip. It looked sort of like a sporty version of a 1980s workout leotard. As it was displayed, the bodysuit seemed as if it would demand some complicated intimate grooming.

Citius Mag, which focuses on running news, posted a photo of the uniforms on Instagram, and many of its followers were not amused.

“What man designed the woman’s cut?” wrote one.

“I hope U.S.A.T.F. is paying for the bikini waxes,” wrote another. So went most of the more than 1,900 comments.

The running comedian Laura Green posted an Instagram reel in which she pretended to be trying on the look (“We’re feeling pretty, um, breezy,” she said) and checking out the rest of the athlete’s kit bag, which turned out to include hair spray, lip gloss and a “hysterectomy kit,” so the women would not have to worry about periods.

When asked, Nike did not address the brouhaha directly, but according to John Hoke, the chief innovation officer, the woman’s bodysuit and the man’s shorts and top are only two of the options Nike will have for its Olympic runners. There are “nearly 50 unique pieces across men’s and women’s and a dozen competition styles fine-tuned for specific events,” Mr. Hoke said.

Women will be able to opt for compression shorts, a crop top or tank and a bodysuit with shorts rather than bikini bottoms. The full slate of looks was not on hand in Paris but will be revealed next week at the U.S. Olympic Committee media summit in New York. The Paris reveal was meant to be a teaser.

Mr. Hoke also pointed out that Nike consults with a large number of athletes at every stage of the uniform design. Its track and field roster includes Sha’Carri Richardson, who happened to be wearing the compression shorts during the Paris presentation, and Athing Mu. And there are certainly runners who like the high-cut brief. (The British Olympic sprinter Dina Asher-Smith, another Nike athlete, told The New York Times last summer that while she opts to run in briefs, she also leans toward a leotard style, rather than a two-piece.)

What Nike missed, however, was that in choosing those two looks as the primary preview for Team U.S.A., rather than, say, the matching shorts and tanks that will be also available, it shored up a longstanding inequity in sports — one that puts the body of a female athlete on display in a way it does not for the male athlete.

“Why are we presenting this sexualized outfit as the standard of excellence?” said Lauren Fleshman, a U.S. national champion distance runner and the author of “Good for a Girl.” “In part because we think that’s what nets us the most financial gain from sponsors or NIL opportunities, most of which are handed out by powerful men or people looking at it through a male gaze. But women are breaking records with ratings in sports where you don’t have to wear essentially a bathing suit to perform.”

The problem such imagery creates is twofold. When Nike chose to reveal the high-cut bodysuit as the first Olympics outfit, purposefully or not, the implication for anyone watching is that “this is what excellence looks like,” Ms. Fleshman said.

That perception filters down to young athletes and becomes the model girls think they have to adopt, often at a developmental stage when their relationships with their bodies are particularly fraught.

And more broadly, given the current political debate around adjudicating women’s bodies, it reinforces the idea that they are public property.

Still, Ms. Fleshman said, “I’m glad Nike put this image out as the crown jewel of Olympic Team design,” because it may act as the catalyst for another conversation that has been long overdue.

“If you showed this outfit to someone from the W.N.B.A. or women’s soccer, they would laugh in your face,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to normalize it for track and field anymore. Time’s up on that.”

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