Menstruating at the Olympics: A silent challenge that sportswomen face

Menstruating at the Olympics: A silent challenge that sportswomen face

Most women are used to dealing with periods at inopportune times. But for female athletes, the stakes are much higher.

Being a professional sportswoman has its ups and downs. While female athletes compete with just as much passion and dedication as their male counterparts, they often get sidelined, paid less, and given less media coverage, funding and exposure.

But another reality that sets women apart from men is hardly ever voiced – how does getting your period affect performance and how do female athletes handle this time of the month?

As most of us know, the symptoms and side effects of menstruation can be far reaching. Physical symptoms can include moderate to severe abdominal pain, sore and tender breasts, bloating of stomach and guts, diarrhoea, nausea, dizziness, anaemia, swelling of hands and feet, headaches and tiredness. Mental symptoms include tension, irritability, low mood, anxiety, loss of confidence and feeling overly emotional.

As any serious athlete can tell you that none of the above is conducive to excellent performance when you’re competing.

The silent saboteur

We don’t talk about periods in sport for a variety of reasons. First, talking openly about periods in general is a rather recent phenomenon. Too often periods are still seen as shameful and something that can only be hinted at with euphemisms.

Second, we see sportsmen and women as these “magnificent machines” who don’t have to deal with pins and needles and headaches and side stiches like normal people. But speak to any athlete, and you’ll soon learn about the multitude of physical hardships they face.

Third, sport is traditionally thought of as a masculine pursuit, which leaves little room for feminine things like periods. An “if you want to play with the big boys” attitude that is all good and well, until a natural, healthy part of being a woman hampers your performance.

Yet, there have been a handful of incidents over the last few years around the sporting world, where sportswomen have spoken openly about their menstrual cycle.

Breaking the silence – and the taboo

At the London Marathon in 2015, Kiran Gandi controversially ran the entire race without a tampon in order to break the stigma surrounding menstruation. Gandi finished the British race with a visible blood stain on her pants to bring awareness to the many women who do not have access to sanitary towels.
Former number one British tennis player, Heather Watson publicly admitted in 2015 that she lost the first round of the Australian Open, because of ‘girl things’. This was one of the first sportswomen to openly speak about the effect of periods on their performance.

And in Wimbledon, it’s compulsory to wear a white tennis kit. While men do not see this as a problem, any woman can tell you that white is the last colour you’ll choose on your period. British tennis player, Tara Moore told the Telegraph that the thought of bleeding on her uniform gives her nightmares. Moore also pointed out that while some do take pain tablets, most painkillers are banned as they go against doping restrictions.