Beach handball bikini fine highlights gap in UK employment law for athletes

Out-Law News | 30 Jul 2021 | 10:39 am | 2 min. read

The recent decision by the European Handball Federation (EHF) to fine the Norwegian Handball Federation (NHF) €1,500 for wearing “improper clothing” highlights a gap in UK employment law that could disadvantage British athletes if similar cases arise, an expert in employment law has said.

The EHF’s decision concerned the choice of the Norwegian women’s team to play in shorts, rather than bikini bottoms, during their recent bronze medal match against Spain at the European Beach Handball Championships. The EHF ruled that choice of shorts ran contrary to regulations on athlete uniforms that form part of the international beach handball rulebook.

The fine imposed on Norway attracted widespread criticism and media attention, with concerns raised by many commentators about the impracticalities of wearing bikini bottoms during sport and its contribution towards the sexualisation of female athletes. One Norwegian government minister describing the ruling as “completely ridiculous” and calling for change. Pop star Pink offered to pay the fines on the team’s behalf, labelling the uniform rules as “very sexist”.

The EHF acknowledged the attention its decision had drawn and confirmed that it donated the fine paid by the NHF. However, it said a change in the athletes uniform regulations, which the NHF had proposed prior to the recent championships, is a matter for the International Handball Federation and not it.

EHF president Michael Wiederer said: “We are very much aware of the attention the topic has received over the past days, and while changes cannot happen overnight, we are fully committed that something good comes out of this situation right now which is why the EHF has donated the fine for a good cause promoting equality in sports. However, any formal decision on the 'Rules of the Game' in beach handball is one of the International Handball Federation and hence I have to reiterate that change can only happen at IHF level. We are committed though to doing all we can to influence this."

Joe McMorrow of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said that, had the case arisen as a workplace dress code issue in the UK, the athlete uniform regulations for beach handball would likely have been deemed to breach the Equality Act as an example of sex discrimination. However, he said that because many athletes are not classed as either employees or workers, they would not benefit from the protections arising under the Act.

McMorrow said: “In some sports, like football and rugby, athletes routinely commit to a club and enter an employment contract. In doing so, they are covered by the Equality Act.  Other athletes are independent and have complete freedom for their own personal brand and sponsorship.  They work hard to achieve their goals but are not considered employees nor workers falling under the protection of the Equality Act.”

“While the balance of public opinion has fallen heavily in favour of the Norway team in this case, it does highlight a gap in UK law that could disadvantage athletes should a similar case arise in this country,” he said.

However, McMorrow said that it may be open to athletes experiencing sex discrimination to raise a challenge under the Equality Act in another way – by claiming the policy or actions concerned run contrary to the prohibition against discrimination in the provision of services that is written into the legislation.  McMorrow said that the concept of services is broad and a wide range of services are covered by the Act, but highlighted that such a legal challenge is as yet untested before the UK courts. A legal challenge could also potentially be lodged under human rights legislation, he said.

McMorrow said that as the UK legislation derives from EU law, there would be similar issues in EU countries.