Skirting the issue: the row smashing the world of women's badminton

Badminton's female stars have forced a climbdown over moves to "sex up" the sport, complaining that new rules requiring them to wear skirts infringe their freedom of movement.

The Badminton World Federation (BWF) has deferred the implementation of a new dress code requiring female players to wear skirts on court in major tournaments after protests.

The federation is seeking to make badminton more "attractive" and "marketable" in response to a report by sports consultants Octagon, which found that the competitors' attire was considered boring and unfashionable by potential television viewers.

Sponsors compared badminton unfavourably with tennis, where glamorous stars such as Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams attract as much attention for their outfits as their ground strokes. However, some Chinese and Indonesian female players have expressed opposition to compulsory skirts. The BWF promised to ensure the dress code "would not discriminate against cultural or religious beliefs".

The issue was not the amount of flesh exposed but the players' ability to move around the court. Li Xuerui, the Asian Championship winner, said: "I did wear a skirt in the All-England tournament last month but it was so big that it affected my performance."

Lilyana Natsir, a mixed doubles world champion, said: "Skirts hamper my movement when I play."

The code, which should have been implemented yesterday, will now not be introduced until the Singapore Open on 14 June. The BWF said this pause for reflection would allow "a dialogue with the players on the guidelines".

The Federation is to discuss the precise definition of "shorts" at its AGM later this month. A source said: "We need to come up with more precise terminology. Players may continue to wear shorts under a skirt. Some Danish women favour thigh-hugging, compression shorts but they are deemed unsightly when worn under a skirt. Baggy men's shorts look ridiculous too."

Vanity was a factor, said the source: "Not everyone looks like Sharapova. There's a lot of lunging, leaping and falling over in badminton and skirts don't flatter some of the podgier players."

Feedback from spectators apparently showed that the women's game was considered "balletic" but slower and less interesting than the more aggressive male game. Turning the female players into personalities was one way to generate interest – and revenues – in the badminton "brand".

Jwala Gutta, the Indian player often called badminton's "glamour girl", said she welcomed attempts to boost badminton's global profile. But she warned that "some of the countries are pretty conservative and have different cultures, so some players might not like the idea". Gutta, 27, urged the BWF to "ask the sponsors to design better clothing. They should make nice dresses like [the ones] Sharapova wears."

Many players will follow the lead of Singapore's Xing Aiying, who said: "I'll just treat it like I'm going to school and I've to wear a skirt because the teacher said so."

The BWF's aim is to "raise the profile of women in badminton", following "relevant examples from tennis where women players enjoy such high profile".

However, Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, was ridiculed when he urged women footballers to wear skimpier kits to increase the popularity of the women's game in 2004.

Under Wimbledon's strict dress code, tennis clothing must be predominately white. Coloured underwear can be worn under tennis dresses, as long as the dress hem covers it.

Paisan Rangsikitpho, the BWF deputy president, said: "BWF have for many years encouraged both badminton clothing manufacturers and players to produce and wear clothing that would enhance the presentation of the game in general. We are, however, willing to listen to the players, which is why we have decided to delay the implementation date slightly."

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