German gymnasts hope unitards become Olympic fashion trend with legs

German gymnast Sarah Voss competes in a unitard on balance beam on day two of the Tokyo Games.
German gymnast Sarah Voss competes in a unitard on balance beam on day two of the Tokyo Games.

Elite athletes train tirelessly to reach the top of their chosen sport. They train their minds and condition their bodies with the singular goal of winning a league title, world championship or even an Olympic gold medal. So is it too much to ask that when it comes time to compete, athletes – especially female athletes, who may more often be judged on appearance rather than performance – feel comfortable in their uniforms?

That issue took center stage this month when Norway's beach handball team was fined 1,500 euros ($1,764) for what the European Handball Federation said was improper attire. The women had decided to wear shorts instead of bikini bottoms at a European championship match in Bulgaria. 

Now the German women's gymnastics team has opted to choose comfort and performance over previously accepted sport fashion norms. The team chose to wear full-body suits in qualifications at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday, a decision they said was designed to promote freedom of choice and encourage women to wear what makes them feel comfortable.

The German team of Sarah Voss, Pauline Schaefer-Betz, Elisabeth Seitz and Kim Bui, competed in red and white unitards, which are combined leotards and leggings extending to the ankles. They wore similar outfits during training on Thursday and said they may choose to wear them again in competition.

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Voss said the team had discussed their choice of attire before competing on Sunday and had settled on the unitard.

"As you are growing up as a woman, it is quite difficult to get used to your new body in a way," she said. "We want to make sure everyone feels comfortable and we show everyone that they can wear whatever they want and look amazing, feel amazing, whether it is in a long leotard or a short one."

Voss said the team, which wore full-body suits at the European championships in April, were keen for the trend to catch on. "We want to be a role model in any case, to make everybody have the courage to follow us," she said.

The Germans' decision to wear unitards earned them praise from fellow competitors in Tokyo.

"I think it's really cool that they have the guts to stand on such a huge arena and show girls from all over the world that you can wear whatever you want," said Norwegian gymnast Julie Erichsen. "I applaud them for that."

For women, the standard competition outfit is a leotard, with long, half-length sleeved and sleeveless garments allowed. Outfits covering legs are authorized in international competitions but to date they have been worn mostly for religious reasons.