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Clothing and equipment guidelines of international sports bodies vis-a-vis religious practices and beliefs of participating athletes

To what extent, if any, should clothing and equipment guidelines of international sports bodies accommodate religious practices and beliefs of participating athletes?

In his book “Beyond the pleasure principle”[1] Neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud had studied a two year old boy in Vienna. The mother of the child travelled often and usually, the baby would be left all alone with a nanny. Naturally, out of melancholia, the boy developed his unique game.

 The kid threw a little ball away to a distance and then, neatly brought it back with a thread to its original position and exclaimed to himself- ‘Duh’.

This observation of Freud is perhaps, the most definitive outline of the psychology behind sports as a concept.  He had later analyzed the boy’s mind that tried to create an illusion of control over a world where he had no authority on. Through sports, we all try to create that imagery situation, where we set ‘rules of conduct’ and enforce a level playing ground. Every person of every age group plays some or the other kind of sport that boosts our fantasy to control the universe. The ball of the kid, did what he wanted it to do, he had control over it, something that he missed in reality.

 We all know that in reality, there are no rules followed by life and perhaps, there is no level playing ground either. We cannot control the circumstances and neither can we avoid them. We all will die; we all will be subjected to the various ironies of life.

History of Sports

Sports, in its modern form, primarily developed in the early nineteenth century. Various developments in history and society were directly linked to the evolving definitions of contemporary sports. With the inventions during the Renaissance, the Industrial revolution to the subsequent mass education of common men (and women) and Urbanizations, sports, too, continuously remained a very dynamic societal factor. In many instances, sports also became an active catalyst social Change and rebel.

During the older era, sports were primarily a religious festival. Sports affiliated itself to religion and the divine and made it a very integral characteristic of playing. The early Olympics in Greece were dedicated to the Gods. The event was basically a celebration of religious faith.

The stadium in Rome was situated right next to the temple of Zeus and the Mayans too, associated their sports life to a religious lifestyle.

However, post the 1800, sports, gradually grew ahead of a religious boundary and turned relatively much more secular. It not only became an independent way of life, but also, in many cases, became a medium of rebel against established mainstream faiths and belief. The Olympics, no longer celebrates religion and a lot of athletes are self proclaimed atheists.

 Now, the administration of sports is also taken over by well defined bureaucracy with definitive rules laid down that aim to accommodate the new spirit of sports. As we discuss, this, ‘spirit of sports’, it is important to understand the meaning that this concept tries to add to the society.

Out the things that we cannot control in life and are eternally subjected to, religion is the foremost. Religion, as an institution and disciple has historically dominated mankind and certainly has had an effect upon society. Therefore, like sports, religion too, has remained a self created perception of mankind in order to achieve a certain value like sports does.

As we remember, in the 1968, Mexico City Olympics,[2] Athletes created the statement of social activism and sports became a very important forum of social and political outrage. The raise hand of Tommie Smith became a symbol of rebel and protest against discrimination, racism and poverty that lead to an entire future civil rights movement in America.

Time and again, athletes have expressed their concerns and worries through sports. Therefore, from a societal and political perspective as well, sports became a place for the expression of dissent. And this dissent is historically extremely valuable, as it had the whole world listening and entailed a very honest belief in integrity. Sports, not just united people on the fields, it also change their mindsets and helped them evolve to the pedestal of higher individuals. This, ability, to accept everyone irrespective of their background with spontaneity is ‘sporting spirit’. There is never any ‘enmity’ in sports. Sports welcome all.

The idea of religion

There is a very close relationship between the genesis of religion and sports. The psychology behind both the concepts was created with a fantasy to bring order and discipline in the otherwise, uncertain and unpredictable life. Like sports, religion too, enforces are defined set of rules of conduct and enforces a sense of morality. It tries to define and regulate human behavior in order to make the society more comfortable. As observed by Sociologist, Emily Durkheim, “The function of religious rituals is to affirm the moral superiority of the society over its individual members and thus to maintain the solidarity of the society”.[3] The God of a particular clan is nothing but a representation in symbolic form of the clan itself. If religion represents a social system or discipline with a coherent set of beliefs and rituals, sports is a similar system with a defined set of rules and procedures (as the rituals) and the sporting spirit. Like belief is the foundation of any religion, sporting spirit is the similar basis of sports. And the boundary of this spirit, is perhaps much wider and broader than the belief. Unlike, religion, sports, does not imbibe in itself, the concept of fear.

Under the circumstances, even though both sports and religion, have similar structure, sports are relatively, perhaps more accommodating towards change.  Therefore, as spoken about earlier, sports have remained a very important factor of social and cultural change.

Sports, no longer is confined to any certain clan or community. Instead, sports have become a global affair.  Hence, even the idea of sports as an activity has undergone a lot of change.

As economy rules

Speaking about the Himalayan region, in his book, Michael Palin, writes about certain cultural chords that knit the entire world together.[4] He plays a sport (Cricket) with the Rawalpindi schoolboys and at that instantly becomes a moment of unification for the reader. We instantly connect to the childlike passion of running around a field or approaching a targeted score. Sports, refreshes those very sweet memories of freshness. From an interior and quiet region of Sultanpur in Pakistan to the burgeoning, city traffic in Australia or London, complete strangers unite through this passion for their childhood simplicity.

Keeping society, culture, unification and all other factors aside, sports, today is a business. In its modern form, sports create a great forum for brands and advertisers to reach out to a global and wide market with a well defined target audience. Every sports athlete today is representative of one or the other corporate or Multi National brand and the era of athlete activism has been replaced by the era of the corporate athlete.

The recent example of Michael Jordon, in the year 1992, marks a significant reflection in this new trend of the Corporate Athlete. Michael Jordon was associated with Niki as a brand ambassador and the makers of his uniform were that of Adidas. Michael Jordon would not wear Adidas for the U.S Company without being paid for the same.  He wore an American Flag, instead to cover his uniform logo and thus avoided the promotion of Adidas as a brand used by him. The flag was not any activist message or a patriotic rant for America. It was simply a business move.

The trend of sports, today, has become that of profit maximization and optimization of earning potential and subsequently an avoidance of any kind of social controversy. Therefore, there is pressure on Athletes to perform, set records and remain in news for the right reasons.

Clothing and equipment in sports

Dhanni Meye, a Bengali, light hearted film, had released it the year 1971. It had an extremely enjoyable scene, where a local priest is turned into a referee for a Football match. The character undergoes a makeover and changes his attire from the traditional thread and religious shawl to a half pant and a jersey. Religion enters sports, leaving behind its dogmas, like we play sports leaving behind our personal insecurities. A staunch priest plays joyfully leaving behind all inhibitions.

The way we dress, reflects a lot about our society, culture, traditions and personality. Fashion, in sociology is an important indicator of various social factors. Beautification of us is also a natural inclination.

Clothing, changes with time, history and circumstances. From the Ancient era to medieval to the Renaissance, clothing also defined human psychology. Similarly, in sports as well, clothing reflects, the socio cultural, geographical and other circumstances amidst which it has evolved. Of course, Corporatization, today focuses on profit making alone, however, this profit making strategy is also dependant on understanding the pulse of the consumers and relating them correctly.

Sport is not an exception for the class hierarchy. Mao Zedong, the communist leader of China had banned Golf and Communists usually dislike golf even now, because it stands as a symbol of Capitalism. Indeed, Every American President except Jimmy Carter has play Golf so far. Hence, the clothing of these sports would also reflect the mentality of the games. To understand this mentality, sports sponsors and Corporates, definitely work immensely hard on their anthropological understanding.

It would we out of place to watch the players, in shorts as they play Cricket. Similarly, if Soccer players are seen trousers, the whole charm of the game would be lost.

The topic in context is about the extent to which we may allow to religion and its influence over Modern day sports. Of course, like sports, religion is an extremely important part that belongs to our life. However, there are also certain other considerations that we should make before we conclude on this issue.

The principles guiding modern day Olympics clearly mention about its movement to accommodate every world individual belonging to every race, religion and all other socio economic or geographical background. Modern Olympics pledges to accommodate every human being through the wide horizon of sports and to escalate them to a higher pedestal of freedom.

In contrast to the Olympic trends before Baron Pierre De Coubertin, when competitors participated naked, Olympics now, regulate a codified dressing structure. Women, since the 1900s have also been allowed to participate. Previously, what was a religious practice of the Greeks (Nudity in the Olympics which had symbolic relevance towards Greek Mythology) was now changed to make it a more secular and inclusive event.

Recently, Saudi Arabia, in 2012 had its first female representation in the Olympics. However, there was a controversy with respect to religion when the woman wished to wear her Hijab in the Games. Finally, she was allowed. Now, the question is whether, in an environment, where we are trying to create an atmosphere of utmost freedom, an act of religious dominance can be allowed.

To understand the same, we need to focus of our concept of Modern feminity. Earlier, in the Olympics, married women were not allowed to watch the game. Quite obviously, it was related to socio-religious beliefs. And today, we believe that we are ahead of such times with real progressive individuals around. Yet, our concept of feminity is particularly well defined and so is masculinity.

The popular term ‘Lara Croft Feminity’[5], perfectly describes our perception of women today. We like them with the perfect cleavage, beautiful figures, lovely make up and they must be heterosexual, yet they should also be professionally successful. Lara Croft. One of the most popular gaming characters outlines this concept. That is the corporate view of women.

Alternately, religions see women passive actors of the society. Every religion, usually expects a woman to remain covered and to be timid and faithful to religion, society and men. Then where does the rebel of a woman lie? Does not allowing religion to become a part of sports make it an implied statement that rebel is no longer welcome in sports? Religion forbids a lot of things and people that sports embraces.

If religion influences, sports attire, then probably, caste, too will. Then we could possibly watch priests with thread playing soccer in bear chest around a soccer field. Or possibly women would be compelled to wear full dresses to cover themselves as they participate in long jumps.

If religion is allowed to influence clothing while playing, the question would be about the extent of it. The Talibans had banned the sport of Kite running as they felt that it was un Islamic. In fact, sports itself, in many religions is a questionable as an activity.

On one hand, the corporate world is trying to objectify human beings for profits and on the other hand, religion tries to confine human beings to set ideologies and rules. Then, fear becomes a major factor in religions. When clothing overshadows sports and its spirit, perhaps the entire aim the institution is lost.

Anna Kournikova, is a name that we associate with Tennis. Yet, this athlete has never won a single tournament. She became a celebrity through modeling. Quite obviously, we noticed clothing much more than the games. As the opportunities narrow down for women, they are barely left with any options to look beyond their clothing as prescribed by society.

Yet, we began playing sports with a different principle. Sports were to allow some freshness into the otherwise suffocating, dull and ordinary lives that we lead. It is probably a forum, where human beings could rebel against the unruly norms of the society and they were not herded as ‘losers’ or ‘winners’. There was honor in losing too. An element of fairness governed sports.

The discussion today, about various influences on sports has widened as the economy approaches us to gulp every visible and athletes avoid controversial involvements to contain their ‘brand value’. And religion keeps passing dictums about the ‘right dress’ ‘right conduct’, ‘right value’, ‘right ideology’ and ‘rights sports’.  We evolved from the primitive eras of celebrating Gods in sports and creating complete divides of religion and initiated a secular Olympics. Modern Olympics, is more than just sports. It is thought or a principle that envisages a better world with utmost regard for human beings and their values of humanity. Human beings, refresh their minds through sports. It is an institution, without any compulsion. Unlike, every other sphere of life, sports tries to encourage its ‘sporting spirit’. There can be no imposition in sports.

The Olympic creed[6] says, “the most important thing in the Olympic games is  not to win, but take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” Thus, the idea is clearly, to redefine the imposing rules of life and to simply the orthodoxies and hear the humane tales, rather than the corporate or religious cacophonies.

Sociologist, Max Weber[7], in Social theory, associated, both the Corporates and religious doctrines that use the enchantment or the disenchantment as a method to achieve consumers or followers.

According to Weber, Pre Modern societies were guided by substantive rationalism rather that formal rationalism. Societies and individuals were guided largely by magic, mysticism and ideologies, primarily that related to religion. Until recently, human lives were controlled by religion.

Religion did have an element of enchantment. So does the Corporates in the modern world. Religion reaches salvation through Dogma and the Corporates reach salvation through profits. The motive is the same. As we tried moving out of the religious dogmas, we got captured by the Corporates. And now we are discussing about the influence of religion in sports!

When we wear jersey in sports, it represents our team. Our dressing carries the first message that we convey about ourselves to the world. What we wear always conveys a message to the world. Billy Jean King protested and conveyed a message in favor of the Gay and Lesbian movement. Increasingly, voices are coming up to increase equality of genders in sports. Inspite of a corporate invasion, sports is perhaps, still trying to survive its sense of ‘sporting spirit’.

From a soccer player Thurman to Mohammad Ali, many sports persons have stood up for equality and religion has been an issue of protest as well. By imposing religion, we shall be dividing people and no longer shall we recognize solidarity of sportsmanship.

 As we see, sports play a very important role in social and cultural change. Unlike religion, it imposes no fear of dire punishments for little deviations. Instead, sports accommodates and changes more rapidly than religion does. As discussed previously, when a message is passed through an open forum of sports. It is probably likelier to reach common men and dissent can be accepted with a broader mindset.

No matter, how communal, one maybe, a cricket lover, would still marvel at the extraordinary techniques and skills of another player of a different religion. This skill and passion unite people of the world. If we were to allow clothing as per religious preferences, and then a pluralist country like India would probably look like hilarious! Every member would have a different style of clothing and the field would not have one unified team, rather it would look like a clothing industry. Further, members of different caste groups, would have different equipments for use and there would be no exchange of gears on the field with a demolished team spirit.

A Saudi Woman, while attending the Olympics is displaying a rebel. However, a Hijab on her head would only seem like a ‘conditional rebel’. Besides, it would make her conscious when everyone else around her is dressed differently. However, we do notice, our Sikh players, comfortably wearing their Sikh turbans. Besides, Brands have also developed equipments where there is sufficient protection while wearing the Hijab. A Hijab does not really, come up as any potential restriction in any of the sports and hence, can be categorized as a private choice of gear. Of course, instead, it a woman wore a Sari or a Burqa for a weight lifting match, it would be really awkward.

As we speak of not allowing religion to take a grip over the liberal sky of sports, we should also be careful that we do the same in a reasonable manner. The choice of gears and equipments that are used by Athletes cannot be impounded simply because they associate any religious symbolism to the same. Dressing should not be an issue of much relevance at all, as all as it does not explicitly undermine the nature and spirit of the sport itself.  Sports, on the other hand should not lose their liberal bent of mind in order to   restrain certain particular people or communities from participating in them. Corporates, have used really short skirts in Tennis and yet, women, have still found a place to prove their worth in the game. Somewhere or the other, all humans are being objectified and obviously, sports cannot be an exception. However, sports should not lose its team spirit of its ability to unify people as it accommodates religion or the Corporates.

Equipments that are shared in a sports room create a nature of bond amongst all the players who use them. When the guidelines are altered for them and there are distinctions made in order to accommodate the personal religious affiliation of the participating athletes, it becomes a tragic divide. Then, no longer, can sports play that role of unification that it otherwise does. It should be seen that there is no extremism the rulings that would hurt ‘sporting spirit’. After all, unlike religion or any other factor in the society, sports impose nothing. Instead, sports, allows us to dream and believe that there can be a fair play in life.

As we cannot go back to the naked Olympics, simply to honor religion, we should also not forbid not forbid passionate players, simply because they wish to cover their heads that have no relation with the game at all. It would be unfortunate, if sports too became an entity with a communal mindset.

Corporate and Brand games too create a divide. However, a Nike Brand Ambassador would, possibly not deny the equipments used by an Adidas representative. No matter how loyal, Michael Jordan was, he still had to wear that Adidas uniform and quite obviously, sports authorities would not have entertain him if had demanded for an uniform of a different brand make. That is precisely what sports do! It creates uniformity. Besides, one could always change his brand affiliations for his personal career strategies. However, the games remain silent about any classification that is beyond team spirit or the game itself. Therefore, that personal space of the players should not be touched at all. If I wish to wear a Sikh turban or a Christian cross, it should be my choice.  We often see players, touching down the ground, displaying religious gestures, as they perform well or even lose. These are acts of spontaneity and should not be restrained.  Then sports too would become like a rigid institution with little space for accommodation.[8]


Sports, like Art, come naturally to human beings. We associate an element of aesthetic appreciation with sports. The little boy in Vienna manifested a world in his play, where his dear ones would never leave him alone again. Most of us completely leave behind our world of worries and uncertainties when we watch sports. Sports are our world of fantasy. We associate liberalism with sports. Therefore, as the committees decide upon their guideline about clothing in sports, they should create a balance where sports is not brought down to s level of mere religious exhibitionism and also they do not disallow people simply because of their display of symbolic religious gears that do not interfere with the sports. The choice must be left to the people when they chose their religious, social or cultural symbols. And uniforms, and sports’ related clothing and gear should be prescribed with reasonability and uniformity also keeping in mind, the safety requirements of the participants. If a participant is wearing a Hijab, it should be safe for her. The brands already develop Hijab gears with appropriate safety measures. Sports should not be prejudiced, instead, the idea to should be to reasonably unite all.

Lest we forget, Sports, is a religion in itself- a religion with the hope of a better world free from cruelty and tragedy.

By: Ujjaini Chatterji, Symbiosis Law School, Noida


[1] Sigmund Freud,  Beyond the pleasure Principle, ( 2nd Edition, Dover Publications, 2015), 10

[2]“ Official Website of  the Olympics Movement- Mexico, 1969, summer Olympics”,<>, Accessed 8/9/15

[3] C. N Shankar Rao,Sociology-Principles of Sociology with an introduction to Social Thought, (Revised edition, S Chand), 412-433

[4] Michael Palin , Himalaya ( 1st edition, Orient books), 52

[5] Professor Orin Starn, Sports and society, (Duke university Press, 2008 edition), 58

[6] Official Website of The Olympic movement, <>  Accessed 8/9/15

[7] Max Weber, Social theory, (Cambridge University Press, 5th  edition) 23

[8] Ashraf Wahab, “Hijab and Sports-what’s with the discrimination”, < Malaysian Digest, 14 October 2014> Accessed 8/9/15

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