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How do Olympians deal with their period?

Yesterday morning, I was dressed in neon pop active wear (proven to make one feel more enthusiastic about exercise), drinking coffee, preparing to pound the pavements for an overdue run. As I flicked through the news of glorious Olympic feats, I felt a familiar sensation growing. My period. Slightly early. Suddenly my body felt weighted down by bricks and ennui, accompanied by the odd needles of pain that like many women I’ve had to manage on a monthly basis since my teens. Not being possessed of Olympic courage, in the end I mustered a measly set of star jumps before admitting defeat and going to have a hot shower. It felt like an accomplishment.

Clearly, I am an unlikely contender for Tokyo 2020. It did make me wonder how elite female athletes ‘manage’ menstruation month-to-month. I’ve always vaguely assumed that they use the pill to stave it off during the actual Games, which was why Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui’s comments about her period this week came as a surprise; not least because it is something that just isn’t really talked about that much day-to-day, let alone in sport.

At the end of the Women’s 4 x 100m relay in Rio, a reporter found Fu doubled over and asked if she was in pain. Her response not only smashed a taboo in sport but also in China, where discourse around menstruation is practically non-existent. The Chinese team had finished fourth.

Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui makes waves in Rio. Photo by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

‘Actually my period started last night, so I’m feeling pretty weak and really tired’, Fu told the interviewer in Mandarin. ‘But that isn’t an excuse. At the end of the day, I just didn’t swim very well.’

The response on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, was electric. It highlighted the lack of knowledge around the topic, with some commentators questioning why ‘the pool wasn’t stained red’ (to which someone cheekily responded ‘haven’t you ever heard of a tampon?’ Duh) and others amazed that she could swim at all. Periods clearly aren’t on the talk table in China. Fu Yuanhui has a huge following in her home country and the response was positive, with many applauding her honesty. It shone a spotlight on the need for education on a natural process which half the population need to deal with. 85 billion sanitary pads were manufactured in China last year but zero tampons. They make up only 2.5% of the domestic market, with many either unaware of their existence or mistakenly thinking they will take a woman’s virginity. The first domestically produced tampon is due for release this year.

Closer to home, former UK tennis player Annabel Croft has talked about the impact that periods can have on sport.

‘I’d get really achey legs and quite headachey. Your mood changes as well. You get more emotional and tearful. You never want to sound like someone making excuses so I never went off and said I lost because of that, but probably I would have thought ‘ah’ to myself when I realised’.

Nobody wants to cop out but it has to have an impact. Also, Annabel’s periods were very irregular, a condition that impacts many female athletes. Around 25% suffer from ‘athletic amennorhea’ - the abnormal absence of menstruation that can be caused by extreme exercise. Periods may stop for six months (or more) and then arrive unexpectedly, making them difficult to predict. Which has deeper implications for a woman’s reproductive cycle. However, in a 2015 study, 37% of elite athletes surveyed reported the other end of the spectrum – heavy bleeding. Not the optimum time to execute a flawless high jump, for example.

Menstruation in sport adds an extra layer of complexity to an athlete’s performance. Record breaking long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe has spoken about how difficult it is to manage:

‘Taking the pill works for some but for many other sportswomen (myself included) it makes them feel worse for longer and dents aggression, determination, will power and the ability to push hard when it matters.’

Women like Croft, Radcliffe and Fu Yuanhui speaking out about periods is a crucial step in removing the stigma around the topic and helping female athletes work better with their coaches to manage something which is a natural part of being a woman. Grace & Green applaud those Olympic athletes that competed in Rio whilst on their period. Find out more about how we are changing the world, one period at a time. 


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