As of last week, I had never heard of beach handball. Now it’s top of mind, thanks to the heroes of the Norwegian women’s national team. That’s another thing I did not know: that Norway has beaches warm enough for sports other than ice fishing.

Anyway, for years, the women of the Norwegian beach handball team have politely protested the . . . oh . . . what’s the word . . .

Sexist?

Idiotic?

Retrograde?

. . . requirement that they compete while wearing tiny bikini bottoms. Their protests produced no changes from the European handball authorities. (Yes, there are European handball authorities. It’s possible that “rule maker” is the single largest employment sector in Europe.) So the women from Norway elected to make their own change. They decided for themselves to wear shorts.

Men play beach handball in shorts: proof that it can be done.

The sachems of the European Handball Federation were scandalized. Women dressing themselves? What next?! The athletes were promptly fined.

You did not read that wrong. In the year 2021, an organization led by people named Michael and Martin ordered a group of young women to pay fines for declining to compete in wedgie-making lycra panties.

The rot in this episode is plain: a level of chauvinism little changed in over a century. Back then, women who wished to compete in sports were required to wear flowing skirts to preserve their modesty. Now, they’re required to bare their abs and show their cheeks. The one constant is that women are not deemed capable of deciding for themselves what to wear, within the bounds of fair competition. The power instead lies with rulemaking bodies dominated by older men and the marmish matrons who enable them.

Instructively, while the Norwegians were being docked for choosing mid-thigh shorts, a track-and-field official in England was scolding the Welsh Paralympian Olivia Breen for wearing too-brief briefs. “We are living in 2021, not the 18th century,” Breen protested, adding, “It made me question whether a male competitor would be similarly criticized.“

We all know the answer to that. Though most sports regulate the clothing of competitors — they’re called “uniforms” because they’re the same for everyone — we are accustomed to seeing male athletes customize their kit. Male swimmers can choose cuts ranging from brief to nearly knee-length. Basketball players wear supportive garments under their uniforms that may be hidden or may go to their wrists and ankles. Baseball players maintain a lively diversity in the length of their pants, from the high-stockinged look of José Altuve to the grass-skimming cut preferred by Shohei Ohtani.

No great imagination is needed to see where the handball honchos are coming from. Their rather obscure sport is a close cousin to beach volleyball, which made its official Olympic debut in 1996 in Atlanta and immediately caught the male gaze with its bikini-clad female athletes. No doubt, promoters of handball would like to experience a similar jolt to their TV ratings, ticket sales and merchandise sponsorships.

But the handball authorities are learning the wrong lesson. To grow the popularity of beach volleyball, the ruling federation of that sport has empowered women with more uniform choices, not fewer. Women are free to continue wearing two-piece uniforms with minimal briefs. Some athletes prefer them, they say, because they trap less sand during the racing, leaping and diving of competition.

But guidelines also allow for long-sleeved uniforms preferred by some Muslim athletes and an assortment of styles in between. Most important, the rules say only that the two players that make up a team should agree on which uniform to wear for any given game.

Choice of uniforms not only respects the integrity of athletes. It also allows an outdoor sport to go global, unhampered by changes in cultures and climates. The preferred uniform in Malibu and Redondo Beach, Calif., may not work in Iceland or Egypt.

But let’s not slide over the integrity of the athletes. There is something wonderful going on in sports. Athletes are challenging the feudal tyrannies of exploitive federations, leagues, associations and organizing committees. It’s happening in U.S. college sports, where the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the stranglehold of the NCAA last month.

And it’s happening on Norwegian beaches.

Professional golfers have essentially owned and operated their own business for decades. Likewise, professional tennis players have great influence over the direction of their sport, and basketball superstars such as LeBron James are now essentially steering the courses of their chosen teams.

What they’ve figured out is this: The only essential ingredient of sports is the athletes. Everything else is infrastructure. Michael Wiederer, president of the European Handball Federation, should be asking athletes what he can do to enhance their skills and highlight their talents — not orchestrating the coverage of their glutes.

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