Ever since sport became big business, organisers and sponsors have been keenly aware of the commercial value of sex appeal. Tennis promoters, for instance, never fail to exploit the box-office value of an appearance by the glamorous former world number one player Maria Sharapova at a tournament, to name just one example.
The fact that such agile woman athletes wear short skirts and dresses doesn't do any harm. If truth be known, a promoter would be mortified if they didn't wear them. An exception, until now, has been women's badminton, an Olympic sport since 1992 and one dominated by Asians, particularly Chinese, who have a competitive and cultural preference for wearing shorts in this event. The World Badminton Federation has decreed women players should wear skirts or dresses in major tournaments to 'ensure the attractive presentation of badminton'. The federation assures us it has never been its intention to portray women players as sexual objects. Rather, stylish presentation is seen as important to the sport's popularity.
The objective of attracting more support is admirable, but the decision has made many players uncomfortable. Hong Kong number one and world number 16 Yip Pui-yin says she runs and jumps a lot on the court, which is 'fine when I am wearing shorts', but there would definitely be some 'psychological effects' if she wore a skirt. China's Asian champion, Li Xuerui, said wearing a skirt had affected her performance at the All England tournament last month. An outcry from the players has forced deferral of the new dress code until next month and it will be a hot topic at the world body's annual meeting in Qingdao this week.
Officials should scrap it. Players should not be forced to wear outfits which detract from their enjoyment and performance. They are valued by the paying public for their sporting ability, not their dress sense, Sharapova included. It should be up to women players to choose whether they wear a skirt, a dress or shorts. Taking part may be more important than winning, as the Olympic ideal has it. But looking good isn't, if it is going to stop you from winning.