On a particularly unhallowed day in the year of our Lord, 1995, the Great and Good of the European Handball Federation came together in hushed urgency to debate the future of their ailing sport. “I just don’t understand,” said one Elder.

“Why isn’t anybody coming to watch handball anymore?” asked another.

The venerable gentlemen of the association bickered fruitlessly for hours, arriving at no workable conclusion. “We need to take action if we want to save handball,” they decided. “But what can we do?”

“Consult the scrolls!” came a low voice from the back of the room. “We’re haemorrhaging funds and the balance is due on my jet ski. Consult the scrolls.”

And so, for the first time since their inception in the sacred beach handball shrine of yore, the very foundation of this glorious and celestial sport was unfurled and looked upon with trepidation by its earthly representatives. And as the dust settled in the flickering candlelight, these godly creatures stared with amazement at the divine commandments before them:

“If thy Handball matches shalt be ill-attended, thou shalt make thine Handball maidens sexy.”

Light shone down from the heavens and all was right with the world. And so, the next day, it was proclaimed throughout the land that female beach handball players would wear only bikini bottoms, and eager men would flock to the stadiums to watch these libidinous excuses for professional sportswomen jiggle about on the sand. Handball was saved and everyone was happy.

The end.

This is just one (slightly embellished) tale of woe in a long catalogue of sporting injustices against women. “So what?” you ask. Been there, done that, got the gratuitously revealing T-shirt. The answer is simple; there’s a revolution afoot.

You might think I’m kidding. But if every insurrection begins with one singular act of rebellion, the Norwegian beach handball team swapping their regulation bikini briefs for contraband shorts was the sporting equivalent of storming the Bastille. Now it’s just a matter of time.

This Sporting Life

(Copyright: Fré Sonneveld)

We’ve seen it already with the unitards of the German Olympic gymnastics team, which provided the full body coverage afforded to their male compatriots but denied to them, a brazen statement of support for the Scandinavians. Because, in a world where female athletes continue to be sexualised as some kind of glamazonian oddity of womanhood, while maleness is prized as a bodily ideal, something needs to change. And in 2021, the wave may have finally broken.

It comes as a surprise to approximately no-one that, in sport, women remain resolutely ‘other’, a novel footnote in the macho pursuit of excellence; the fact that 12 percent of males believe they could win a set against 23-time Grand Slam champ Serena Williams alludes to the patronisation of female sporting endeavours. If men are standing on the shoulders of giants, women are confined to the benches, pathetic emulations of masculinised features, all over-broad shoulders and unladylike, ‘melon-crushing’ thighs. And if female athletes do retain the arbitrariness of male-enforced beauty standards? As with the Norwegian beach handball players, they’re fodder for sporting committee heads, a chance for 2 hours away from the wife to preface every utterance with, “Cor, boys, would you take a look at her!?”

Handballgate offers us a strange dichotomy. There is, of course, a brilliance in owning your story and raising two fingers to an establishment who impugn your very right to ‘be’. Yet there’s something acrid about the almost eschatological zeal with which the European Handball Association dished out a 1500 Euro fine to the Norwegian team. It’s a perfunctory amount; split between all 11 players, it totals a little over 136 Euro each. It isn’t a punishment. It’s a threat. It’s goading, a marked sign that protest will change nothing, for precisely the reason that authority forbids it. But we can’t let courage go unrewarded. Sisterhood is worth more than that.

It’s easy to get riled up about sporting injustice- Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’, the inscrutable failure of Cool Runnings to receive even a single Oscar nod at the 1994 Academy awards. It’s just as easy, however, to remain silent in the face of struggle, to disregard a moveable feast on the cusp of revolution because it’s a dangerous path to tread. It’s clear that what sport needs is change from above- something or someone that will right the wrongs of a sexism so institutionalised that, no matter what we say, think, or do, our efforts to enact meaningful improvement will be fruitless until there is someone in womankind’s corner on every sporting committee, every coaching panel, every touchline.

The question we might ask is where that leaves us. It’s about more than beach handball players being allowed to wear what they want on the pitch. It’s about more, even, than the treatment of female athletes at an elite, or indeed, any level. It’s about the position of women; who are we if not an appendage, a Pavlovian instrument of response to the needs of our male counterparts? We are who they want us to be- today a sex-object, tomorrow simply one of the guys. We cannot continue.

Perhaps the desire for true equality is hopeless. Maybe women are forever to be trapped in some Casablanca-type hell; quivering, obedient, tossed between Humphrey Bogarts and non-Humphrey Bogarts alike, merely waiting for the word to follow their man into the breach. Yet something tells me there’s more to life than that. It’s true, we’re waiting for a systemic change to proceedings that is likely still years away. But until that happens, we’ll have to settle for seemingly minor acts of resistance, of which dress-code rebellion is just one.

This sporting life is hard; not all of us have the luxury of protest and sisterly solidarity. But if the Norwegian beach handball team is just one minute facet of the change, then it’s enough, for now, to cheer from the side-lines. Because when they need us on the pitch, we’ll be there.

There’s a revolution afoot. It may not be today, or tomorrow, but when it arrives, we’ll know about it. And if women in sport are just one small part of that, they’re in gold medal position.

(Author: Anna Hanlon)

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