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The practicality of spandex

Women’s volleyball is a sport that generally draws a lot of attention – especially male attention – for its intense action, riveting pace, and skin-tight uniforms. Two of those three are common to most court sports, yet the third presents a bit of a puzzle. What is it exactly that justifies that most memorable component of women’s volleyball, spandex? Why has it permeated almost every level of play, and what does it do for our athletes that normal shorts cannot? Every spectator has, at one point, turned to his or her neighbour and asked a variation of one of these questions, and few, if any, have received a valid response.

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Date Posted: June 9, 2011
Print Edition: May 27, 2011

Spandexgate: what Volleyball Canada doesn’t want you to know

By Paul Esau (The Cascade) – Email

Image: Flickr.com

Women’s volleyball is a sport that generally draws a lot of attention – especially male attention – for its intense action, riveting pace, and skin-tight uniforms. Two of those three are common to most court sports, yet the third presents a bit of a puzzle. What is it exactly that justifies that most memorable component of women’s volleyball, spandex? Why has it permeated almost every level of play, and what does it do for our athletes that normal shorts cannot? Every spectator has, at one point, turned to his or her neighbour and asked a variation of one of these questions, and few, if any, have received a valid response.

This is not to say that nobody has answers. Many female volleyball players argue the superior flexibility and fit of spandex compared to conventional options, and credit it with improved performance on the court. Former UFV setter Kim Mintenko even mentioned that a “positive to wearing the tight shorts is that there isn’t a lot of material to get in the way and [they] won’t touch the net when jumping.” Yet despite her five years playing for UFV, and a volleyball career beginning in middle school, Mintenko confesses she’s unsure why spandex shorts have become the standard attire for her sport. “I remember it was kind of awkward to wear,” she says of her introduction to the shorts in grade eight, “but I knew that everyone was [wearing spandex] so I got used to it.”

Obviously it’s important for a sports team to don matching uniforms, but such pressure explains only how the spandex phenomenon perpetuates itself, not how it began. As Mintenko notes, “I have never seen a team that wears baggy shorts before, but I think if they did everyone would have to. I think that’s the main rule; that everyone has to wear the same uniform. But I’ve never even heard of a team that has done that, so I’m not sure if it can happen or it can’t.”

Dennis Bokenfohr, UFV’s Women’s Volleyball coach, sees spandex shorts as a semi-official requirement of the sport, albeit one with a slightly subversive purpose. “It’s as simple as that’s what the league rules have adopted,” he states. When asked why such a rule would exist, Bokenfohr carefully replied, “there has been some belief, that at the higher levels it’s to attract TV ratings.” He continued, “if it was because of tangling and all that stuff, the men would wear spandex as well.”

UFV’s volleyball teams play in the BCCAA, which defers to an annual rulebook put out by Volleyball Canada for matters of game play, officiating, and, surprisingly, uniforms. When asked whether the organization enforced a rule regarding spandex shorts, BCCAA contact Andre Tee admitted “I have not heard of that rule but if it is rule specific in the Volleyball Canada handbook and it’s written in there, then I am not sure why the confusion with players.” A fair enough answer, yet one that leaves three significant details unresolved:

a. If Tee himself does not know the handbook which provides the basis for his organization well enough to confidently deny such a rule, how can he expect the players to be familiar with it?

b. The Volleyball Canada Handbook is only available through Volleyball Canada in hard copy at a cost of $12.50 per book. There is no electronic copy available to players.

c. Tee himself offered no explanation as to why female volleyball teams overwhelmingly wear spandex shorts as part of their uniform.

James Sneddon, Domestic Development Director for Volleyball Canada itself, was marginally more helpful. According to him, the section of the handbook pertaining to participant uniform is contained in the following: “A player’s equipment consists of a jersey, shorts (the uniform), socks, and sport shoes.” He was unsure why spandex had become the norm. “I can’t find any reference to spandex anywhere in the rule book,” he said. “I’m not sure why it has become a custom. It may be better to ask someone who was around during the [19]70s.” When asked whether he could recommend someone who ‘was around during the 70s’ to provide a more definitive answer, Mr. Sneddon did not reply.

Coach Bokenfohr, upon a second interview, admitted that he also was unable to find the rule pertaining to spandex shorts as part of the uniform which he had at first referenced, explaining that “for the women’s game you’re brought up doing it [wearing spandex shorts], and if it’s the only option you have then you do it.”

Obviously that pair of spandex shorts represent a mystery; a fascinating, yet sensitive hole in public knowledge that results from a veritable conspiracy permeating the very highest levels of organized volleyball in Canada. The idea that no one knows why spandex shorts are standard uniform for female volleyball players is hard to swallow, especially considering the position is unique among court sports. Yet if the players themselves don’t complain, and audiences (at least the male members) continue to appreciate the unique contribution of spandex to the viewing experience, then it seems unlikely we will find the answers to these questions any time in the near future. I suppose there could be worse fates.

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