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Germany's female gymnasts wear full-body unitards in stand against "sexualization" of sport

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Fans are used to seeing gymnasts wearing bold, colorful outfits covered in sparkly gems. But Team Germany made a statement with their outfits at the Tokyo Olympic Games on Sunday — completely covering their arms and legs with full-body unitards. 

The team says that the outfits are a protest against the "sexualization" of the sport.  

The looks were a stark departure from the sport's standard bikini-cut leotards. They are much more similar to the body-covering outfits worn by male gymnasts during their routines. 

The German team debuted its new "long suits" at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships in April. At the time, the German Gymnastics Federation said that they were a statement "against sexualization in gymnastics." 

"The aim is to present aesthetically — without feeling uncomfortable," it said. 

"We sat together today and said, 'Okay, we want to have a big competition,'" 21-year-old Sarah Voss of Germany told reporters on Sunday, speaking about the last-minute decision to wear unitards at the Games. "We want to feel amazing, we want to show everyone that we look amazing."

Germany's Pauline Schaefer-Betz competes in the artistic gymnastics balance beam event of the women's qualification during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on July 25, 2021. LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images

The decision comes at the first Games since former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to over 100 years in prison for sexually abusing more than 265 girls and young women, including Team USA superstars Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, who have spoken publicly about the abuse. The investigation is ongoing and a recent report found the FBI failed to properly investigate allegations against Nassar long before his first victims came forward. 

"We women all want to feel good in our skin. In the sport of gymnastics it gets harder and harder as you grow out of your child's body," Voss said in April of the decision. "As a little girl, I didn't see the tight gym outfits as such a big deal. But when puberty began, when my period came, I began feeling increasingly uncomfortable." 

Other gymnasts have also opted for bodysuits in recent years. Marina Nekrasova of Azerbaijan wore one at a World Cup event in 2019 and Jana Elkeky of Qatar wore a bodysuit that covered her upper legs at the 2018 World Championships in Doha. 

"Perhaps someone is stopped by the leotards, and I wanted to show that it's possible, there are no limits," said Nekrasova, who competes for a nation where leotards are not always accepted as appropriate. "I often hear that parents take the girls out of gymnastics classes because of the leotards and it's a pity that they leave. You can change the uniform, so you can train and try. I hope I managed to show that."

In June, Biles said that she prefers traditional leotards because they make her appear taller than her 4-foot-8 height. But she supported the choice to wear unitards, often favored for cultural or religious modesty. 

"I stand with their decision to wear whatever they please and whatever makes them feel comfortable," Biles said. "So if anyone out there wants to wear a unitard or leotard, it's totally up to you." 

Gymnastics - Artistic - Olympics: Day 2
Elizabeth Seitz of Germany competing on Women's Qualification - Subdivision 5 during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 25, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Iris van den Broek/BSR Agency/Getty Images

"It's a really good idea," echoed Team USA's Sunisa Lee, who competes alongside Biles. "I think those are really cool. I like it a lot because people should be able to wear what they feel comfortable in, and it shouldn't be a leotard if you don't want to wear it."

While the gymnasts' outfits comply with the rules of the International Gymnastics Federation, other teams have faced opposition to attempts to wear more modest competitive clothing. Ahead of the Games last week, the Norwegian women's beach handball team was fined for violating a wardrobe requirement when they opted for shorts rather than bikini bottoms. 

"It's completely ridiculous," Norway's Minister for Culture and Sports Abid Raja tweeted after the ruling. "What a change of attitude is needed in the macho and conservative international world of sport."

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