The most vivid memory that the majority of Americans have of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, apart from the awe-inspiring opening ceremonies which will no doubt be bested tonight by the appearance of over two dozen Mary Poppinses, was that odd 40-day stretch in which women's beach volleyball was the only thing on television. Not the only competition being broadcast on the NBC Olympic channels. Not the only sport on all the sports channels. Literally the only thing being shown at any time on any channel, including HBO which is not even TV, it's HBO, was women's beach volleyball.
Even though it got sort of boring after a while, no one complained much. The athletes compete in bikinis, which is very exciting. If you've got to pick one group of Olympians to see in bikinis, you could do a lot worse than the women's beach volleyball team.
Naturally, people were aghast this past spring, when the International Volleyball Federation (which consists of four best friends, plus one guy who everybody likes but they're just not as close with, all wearing Oakley's and drinking beers around a small bonfire on a beach in California) ruled that, for the first time in Olympic history, players could compete in "shorts of a maximum length of (1.18 inches) above the knee, and sleeved or sleeveless tops," instead of itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikinis.
The decision was made in order to better accommodate the cultural and religious customs of countries where, for adult women, bikinis are considered an unusual costume.
Fans of the sport clutched their pearls.
"In my day, it wasn't considered proper for a young lady to set foot onto a beach volleyball court unless she had her mammaries stuffed appealingly into a triangle bikini top."
Kath Woodward, a British sociology professor who wouldn't know a good time if it bounced right up to her wearing a sequined string bikini and asked "Do you like to party?" told the Washington Post wearing sexy bikinis trivializes sexy women.
"Women should be able to wear shorts and vests rather than wearing bikinis. It trivializes women; they get called girls and sexualized."
Bikinis have been a staple of beach volleyball since it became an official Olympic sport in 1996. Indoor volleyball, also known as "The Volleyball of Lords and Ladies," has been a part of the games since 1964. Because neither its male nor its female athletes compete in bikinis, however, many people are not aware non-beach volleyball exists.
Fortunately, Team USA is still committed to giving everyone a show. They're planning to wear their bikinis as usual during the competition, though the Post reports that they have also packed traditional Amish garb like leggings and fitted t-shirts to wear if the weather proves cold. (The American team will be competing crazy late at night in order to attract the largest possible TV audience back home. The first women's match, against Australia, is Saturday night at 6 EST – 11 p.m. London time.)
April Ross, of Team USA, says she doesn't care what she wears to play, but understands that other women may not have the luxury of her laid-back hang-ten California vibe.
"… I appreciate the hard work we put in and how grueling the sport actually is, so I couldn't care less what we wear while we play. I understand that other women have other concerns than we do. So wear shorts, wear pants. I don't care. And I don't think anyone else should care, either."
If nothing else, the bikinis are a great middle finger to the female athletes competing as swimmers, who must coax their bodies into ugly compression overalls made of nylon.
[Washington Post // Image of a Spanish competitor's culo via Getty]