The European Handball Federation (EHF)’s decision to fine the Norwegian Handball Federation (NHF) €1,500 for wearing “improper clothing” reportedly highlights a gap in UK employment law that could disadvantage British athletes in similar cases, Pinsent Masons has warned.
The fine was handed out after the Norwegian women’s team played in shorts, rather than bikini bottoms, during a recent 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 attracted “widespread” criticism and media attention, with concerns raised by many about the impracticalities of wearing bikini bottoms during sport and its contribution towards the sexualisation of female athletes. Pop star Pink also offered to pay the fines on the team’s behalf, calling the rules “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 is also a matter for the International Handball Federation and not it.
Joe McMorrow of Pinsent Masons 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.
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.
He 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.”