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Bikinis here to stay in beach volleyball

    FILE - This June 18, 2011 file photo shows Kerri Walsh, of the U.S., returning the ball to China's Xi Zhang during a women's beach volleyball World Championships semifinal match in Rome. Top players say they won't be switching from the beach- and TV-friendly bikinis to the more modest uniforms approved recently by the International Volleyball Federation as a nod to countries where more modest attire is preferred. (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito, File)

Fear not, fans of beach volleyball — or of the women who play it.

Top players say they won’t be switching from the beach- and TV-friendly bikinis to the more modest uniforms approved recently by the International Volleyball Federation as a nod to countries where more modest attire is preferred. 

“It’s something I really feel comfortable with,” said Kerri Walsh, who with Misty May-Treanor won the gold medal in Athens and Beijing while wearing the standard beach volleyball uniform: a two-piece bathing suit. “It’s something I feel empowered by, not distracted with. I’m not a sex symbol; I’m an athlete. I want to be streamlined out there.”

Bikinis are a natural for a sand-based sport, and they’ve been the standard Olympic uniform since beach volleyball became an official event at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Players say they prefer the beachwear because it allows them freer movement, and the minimum of material leaves less room for sand to get into their clothing and cause chafing.

It doesn’t hurt the TV audiences, either, as television producers zoom in for close-ups of the women signaling to each other by holding up their fingers against their behinds.

But under new rules adopted by the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), players are now free to wear shorts and sleeved tops. The governing body said the move was made out of respect for the cultural beliefs of some of the countries still in contention to qualify for the games.

Walsh said she’ll stick to the bikini. 

Still, she applauded the change.

“I think it’s fantastic,” she said. “I don’t want anything as trivial as a uniform to keep anyone from chasing their dreams.” 

The new rule will allow women to wear shorts that stop a little more than an inch above the knee, along with a sleeved or sleeveless top — similar to the uniforms for indoor volleyball players. The rule has already been in effect at five Continental Cup qualifying competitions involving 142 nations. 

It will now apply to the Olympics, prompting defending men’s gold medalist Todd Rogers to Tweet a link to the story with the comment: “Bummer.”

Not to worry.

“We’re staying in ours,” May-Treanor said. “I don’t see too many people changing.” 

The change was spurred in part by a change in the Olympic entry format. Teams used to qualify by compiling points on an international pro tour, but in an effort to expand the pool to other countries the FIVB has turned the qualification over to national governing bodies.

That created the possibility that a team from a country with more modest religious or cultural standards would qualify for the Games. Walsh noted that it could also include a team from the United States that had hesitated to compete before because of the clothing. 

“No doors should be shut at this point,” she said. 

May-Treanor noted that the process of designing the Olympic suits is already well underway for her and probably many other teams. But for teams without?

“To each his own,” she said. “If you get down to it, it’s about the sport and not what we’re wearing. So it’s fine, whatever anybody feels comfortable with.”

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