ONE of my earliest Olympic memories is of the Magnificent Seven winning gymnastics gold in Atlanta 1996.

The seven women were the first  to win team gold for the United States, breaking the stranglehold of the eastern bloc nations, and it was so outstanding, and so full of drama, it caught the attention of every sports’ fan whether they were a gymnastics’ aficionado or not.

There are few who will not remember Kerri Strug performing the vault despite having seriously injured her ankle, limping off the mat in her white leotard emblazoned with the stars and stripes of the American flag before being carried on to the podium to accept her winners’ medal alongside her team-mates.

The outfits worn by those gymnasts remain one of my strongest memories of that performance.

It is hard to watch any female gymnast perform and not, at least in passing, notice what they are wearing. So skimpy are the outfits, almost every inch of their body is on show. The outfit is, after all, deemed to be part of the performance.

That might be all set to change now, though.

At last week’s European Championships, Germany’s Sarah Voss did not wear a traditional leotard. Instead, she wore a unitard, which has full-length arms and legs so only a minimal amount of her skin was showing.

Her choice defied all norms of the sport, and was striking in contrast to the usual skimpy leotards we are all so used to seeing.

Her outfit was not contravening any rules, as full bodysuits are permitted in order to cater for gymnasts’ religious beliefs.

However, Voss’ decision was not based on religion; rather, her choice was designed to take a stand against “sexualisation in gymnastics”.

It was a powerful statement, and one that has resonated far wider than the bubble of her sport.

The project, revealed Voss, had been a year in the making, and she was followed a few days later by her team-mates, Kim Bui and Elisabeth Seitz, in an attempt to empower women and girls within the sport.

“As part of the German national team, we are also a role model for many younger female athletes and would like to show them how they can present themselves aesthetically in a different form of clothing without feeling uncomfortable,” Voss said after her performance. 

Her move was backed by the German Federation and also received widespread support, but the waves her choice of outfit have caused says much about the sport and its norms.

That it is expected for female gymnasts to wear such revealing outfits is not a positive reflection on the sport.

Indeed, International Gymnastics Federation’s (FIG) guidelines about the regulations of leotards state: “The leg cut of the leotard may not extend beyond the hip bone (maximum),” as well as: “The leotard leg length cannot exceed the horizontal line around the leg, delineated by no more than 2cm below the base of the buttocks.”

If gymnasts are deemed to have deviated from these regulations, they receive a points penalty. 

For such strict policing of the women’s outfits to be in place is astonishing, particularly considering the prevalence of sexual assault allegations and charges the sport has faced in recent years, most notoriously, of course, being the US team doctor, Larry Nassar, who was jailed in 2017 for sexually abusing hundreds of gymnasts over decades.

While the expectation to wear skimpy leotards is not directly connected to any kind of sexual abuse, it contributes to what Voss called the sexualisation of the sport, and could contribute to girls and women within gymnastics feeling unsafe which is, clearly, detrimental to both the individual athletes and the sport as a whole.

“Every time you don’t feel safe it’s distracting you from what you want to perform,” said Voss. 

“I think that feeling safe and not thinking about what other people can or cannot see is quite relieving when you can compete like that.”

As is the case for every trailblazer, Voss’ move required bravery. To be the first gymnast to deviate from what gymnasts are expected to wear is not an easy decision, and one she knows could have received a hostile reception.

That she did so regardless is impressive, and is likely to have a lasting effect on her sport, and beyond.

There can be little doubt that not every gymnast is comfortable wearing such revealing clothing. To be expected to have so much of your body exposed contributes significantly to self-consciousness and can lead to eating disorders and crushing doubts. 

To have the option to be more covered-up will be life-changing for some gymnasts, and will likely lead to young girls joining the sport, as well as remaining in it when they otherwise might not have done so.

As Voss said, gymnasts are welcome to continue wearing traditional leotards if they wish, but her move has opened the door for everyone in the sport to feel they now have an alternative.

This is huge progress.

In almost every sport, female athletes are sexualised and objectified to a far greater extent than their male counterparts. 

This needs to end. 

Gymnasts covering up more will not resolve the issue. But it is certainly a step in the right direction.