LANE ONE: First there was abuse from a physician, then from coaches, now, the newest fight in gymnastics is over … leotards!

World Championships Team gold medalist Riley McCusker (USA)

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While the USA Gymnastics bankruptcy case drones on and the sport’s competitions are essentially shut down, a recent story from New Zealand takes aim at a new flashpoint in the sport:

Leotards.

Senior Sports Reporter Zoe George from stuff.co.nz reported late last week on women’s uniform rules as an emerging issue in women’s gymnastics. The issues are fairly obvious:

“The leotard – a tight-fitting, often embellished one-piece garment that covers the shoulders to crotch – has been used as a mechanism of control, intimidation, violence and period shaming in gymnastics, according to athletes and leading academics, in NZ and globally.”

“At one of the country’s leading clubs, a rule was introduced by a male head coach stating young women and girls who wanted to be on the ‘elite’ squad must wear leotards to training. They trained more than 30 hours a week.

“Athletes had to fight to wear shorts while they were on their period. The fact athletes had to fight to wear shorts has been described as ‘disgusting’ by a parent and ‘degrading’ by a former club coach.”

Observers note that this is only one element in the historically-based lack of “gender equity” in artistic gymnastics, not the least of which is the program of events:

Men: 6 events, including Floor Exercise, Vault, High Bar, Parallel Bars, Pommel Horse and Rings. This program has been fixed since the 1934 World Championships.

Women: 4 events, including Floor Exercise, Vault, Balance Beam and Uneven Bars. This program has remained the same since the 1950 Worlds, when the Uneven Bars was added.

As far as attire, the men’s uniform regulations emphasize simplicity and (apparently) comfort, from Article 2.3 of the 2017-2020 Men’s Code of Points:

“a) They must wear long gymnastics pants and socks on Pommel Horse, Rings, Parallel Bars, and Horizontal Bar. Long gymnastics pants, socks and/or slippers that are black or the darker shades of blue, brown or green are not permitted.

“b) They have the option of wearing short pants with or without socks or long gymnastics pants with socks on Floor Exercise and Vault.

“c) The wearing of a gymnastics singlet on all apparatus is compulsory.

“d) They have the option of wearing of gymnastic footwear and/or socks.”

The women’s uniform rules are a bit more specific, from Article 2.3.2 of the 2017-2020 Women’s Code of Points:

“a) They must wear a correct sportive non-transparent leotard or unitard (one piece leotard with full length legs – hip to ankle), which must be of elegant design. She may wear complete leg coverings of the same color as that of the leotard; under or on top of the leotard.

“b) The neckline of the front and back of the leotard/unitard must be proper, that is no further than half of the sternum and no further than the lower line of the shoulder blades. Leotards/unitards may be with or without sleeves; shoulder strap width must be minimum 2 cm.

“c) The leg cut of the leotard may not extend beyond the hip bone (maximum). The leotard leg length cannot exceed the horizontal line around the leg, delineated by no more than 2 cm below the base of the buttocks.

“d) They have the option of wearing gymnastic slippers and socks.”

So, no problem right? Unitards for everyone and the issue should be resolved!

Of course not.

In her story, George noted that she spoke with several New Zealand gymnasts about unitards and wrote that they “were unaware that FIG also introduced a rule stating female gymnasts could wear full-length unitards that cover wrist to ankle in 2009.”

Where’s the blame for this? It has to be …

Coaches.

In many ways, the Larry Nassar story is truly odd in that the greatest abuse scandal in sports history came from a volunteer team physician. Anyone who has been around sports for any length of time – at any level – has observed coaches with wildly different approaches to teaching and training.

Some are supportive. Some are screamers. Some are stoic. Some are abusive: before or during or after practice, and sometimes away from sports altogether. Investigations are now underway in multiple countries concerning individual coaches after reports of improper behavior have surfaced.

It’s important that the abusers be removed, especially in women’s gymnastics, where so many competitors are so young. The opportunity to wear a unitard, or some other style of uniform which allows judges – there’s another issue – to evaluate their routines properly and maintains pride in appearance, is an obvious need.

This change has already been undertaken in other sports, most especially in swimming, where the tiny men’s trunks of the 1960s and 1970s – made famous by Speedo – have changed to waist-to-knee suits. Most women now wear shoulder-to-knee suits, instead of the old, one-piece suits. This is better.

The same is true in beach volleyball, where the bikini alone is no longer compulsory for women, especially helpful in bad weather, and in track & field, where a variety of uniforms can be worn, depending on the event.

Is it time for all (1) female gymnasts (and parents), (2) judges of women’s gymnastics and (3) coaches of women’s gymnastics to receive the equivalent of a “Miranda warning” about the uniform options available – including the unitard – and including a clause that states that no deductions shall be made for the type of uniform worn, so long as it is within the rules?

In truth, having more area that can be decorated on a uniform can offer more opportunities for individual expression. Three-time Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas (USA) wore a specially-designed leotard in 2016 that featured the Hebrew word “Elohim” – one of the Hebrew names for God – on one arm to salute her participation in Jewish religious services earlier in her life. What more could be done with the legs, in line with “elegant design”?

Rule changes are the province of the Federation Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG), whose next Congress was slated for October of this year, but put off – due to the coronavirus pandemic – to October of 2021.

No matter. The question of gender equity between men’s and women’s events is something that will take a commission to figure out and some years. But a revision of the women’s uniform rules – whether to allow short or long pants in addition to leotards and unitards, or a mandatory notice about the availability of unitards – is something which can be done by an e-mail vote and implemented quickly.

This is not about Olympic competitions or the World Championships, but especially for youngsters and non-elite gymnasts who simply want to participate in the sport.

USA Gymnastics also has an opportunity to lead here; this has nothing to do with the bankruptcy proceeding, but can send a clear message to its 192,686 members (as of 2016) and to the FIG as well. As with so many aspects of society today, the door to change is open.

Ensuring understanding of the rules on women’s gymnastics uniforms is one more small step in the right direction.

Rich Perelman
Editor

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