Olympics 2021- Female Athletes & Menstruation
If 24 year old Sharon had her first period at the age of 12 and has since had them three times with an interval of an ‘Olympiad’, then how long was the interval for? Don’t worry, we aren’t testing your math, you will find the answer to this in the blog…
An ‘Olympiad’ interval is the same interval as that between an Olympic Game Event, i.e., after four years! Having a period every four years is considered abnormal, but in Olympic terms it is the normal time frame between two Olympic sporting events.
1900 became the first year when women were allowed to compete at the Olympics and Charlotte Cooper became the first female Olympic Champion. The fight for female inclusion in sporting events such as the Olympics has come a long way. One major topic that has followed women into the athletic sphere has been that of ‘Periods’. With the upcoming Tokyo Olympics 2021, we are going to look into female athletes, menstruation and the history of the Olympics.
Olympics & Female Athletes
Shrouded in various myths and mysteries, the Olympics has been a fascinating event throughout the centuries. It is intertwined with myths of peace, with a truce that helped pilgrims travel through dangerous regions, and with Hercules’ 12 labour tasks as a tribute to Zeus. The history and myths attached to the Olympics add an aura of flare and mysticity. But its pioneering origin can be traced back to the ancient Olympic Games held in Olympia, Greece from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD.
The first modern Olympic games were held in Athens in 1896. Although women participation in the Olympics began in 1900, it was more than a century later, when at the 2012 Summer Olympics, every participating nation included female athletes for the first time in Olympic history.
Female athletes on menstruation
During the 2016 Rio Olympics, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui, swam the 4×100-meter relay while on her period. When Fu was interviewed after losing the bronze medal by a position, she apologized for not swimming well enough. She admitted to having been on her period and said that she hadn't given her best.
Many applauded her for not giving up and participating regardless of being on her period. Fu is one of the many female athletes that have carried through their sporting events on countless occasions, despite being on their periods. For many, it could have been a once in a lifetime opportunity, for some a chance to be a part of the hall of fame. And just like Fu Yuanhui, she refused to blame her performance on a biological concept; a process as natural as breathing.
Effects of Overexertion
There is still a debate over whether the menstrual cycle can, in fact, affect the athlete’s performance adversely. The hormones induced during menstruation could possibly alter the functioning of a female body and affect one’s athletic performance.
Many athletes feel stressed and pressured to perform despite feeling the effects of their period. They are much more fatigued and experience fluctuating mood swings, which affects their athletic performance, both mentally and physically.
For a woman to have a normal period, a certain amount of fat level is required to be maintained, especially near the lower abdomen. Due to overexertion and in some cases excessive muscle strengthening routines, women lose their ability to get periods, a condition known as ‘Athletic Amenorrhoea’ in the sports world. In some cases, due to overexertion of the body and lack of proper nutrition, these athletes have stopped menstruating or have been diagnosed with the ‘Female Athlete Triad’, a combination of eating disorder, amenorrhea and osteoporosis.
Such problems could be rooted in the fact that sportswomen have to become leaner for athletic purposes and have to over exercise and be extremely physically active. It is important to note though, that not all women experience or feel the same pain, discomfort or medical conditions. There is a diversity of female athletes out there and each woman’s body reacts differently.
There is varying advice surrounding how female athletes should manage their periods. The little advice that can be found diverges between teams, individuals, cultures, and places. So how do female athletes manage their periods?
What do they do?
To battle possible chronic health conditions, many athletes take up certain preventive measures to ensure that their game day goes as smoothly as any other day:
- Protective Layers: Some athletes use a protective absorbent layer. A lot of professional cyclists and runners use Period Pants under their tight shorts; they are like a bigger version of a pad, though are not always the most comfortable.
- Painkillers: they help with temporarily managing the pain, pushing aside any discomfort.
- Period tracking apps: The apps can also help to keep women at ease by monitoring their cycle, hormones or moods. This is especially important for athletes as they need to have the right intake of nutrients and carbohydrates to avoid injuries, losing too many calories, and knowing why they may feel off some days.
- Skipping Periods: Another common method used is to alter the natural cycle by skipping one’s period. These women plan out their cycles according to their sporting events and take medical drugs to regulate their expected dates. Some of the medical options available includes birth control pills or birth control rings. However, it is important to note that there is a large debate surrounding this topic; not all women use this method as some consider it unnatural and unhealthy.
- Birth control pills: They help by regulating hormone levels (progesterone and oestrogen), and help women to skip their periods, especially during competing seasons. It’s best to consult a gynec prior to starting birth control.
- Menstrual Cup: This is another alternative to tampons and pads. They help to monitor how much women bleed and whether they have enough nutrients. It is also an attractive eco-friendly option that helps to reduce waste. If you are interested in this form of sanitation, stay tuned as the menstrual cup is one of our new products being launched!
- Hot water bottles: Professional cyclists use these to reduce the pain and discomfort, however they are not always practical and affect aerodynamics.
- Changing diets during their cycle: Many professional athletes increase their intake of iron and vitamin C, as they lose nutrients and need to boost their energy levels up.
Rely on Mother Nature: A lot of women either consciously and happily choose to follow their natural cycle and others choose the natural way because of a lack of access to resources.
Some of the above mentioned methods such as medication could often lead to other unwanted side-effects. Biologically, skipping one’s periods cannot be a solution in the long run; it can pose serious health issues such as heart problems, bone damage and hormonal imbalances.
Female athletes are advised by doctors and fitness experts to maintain certain dietary and nutritional levels. They must remain hydrated by possibly drinking warm teas or concoctions and must intake an iron-rich diet.
As the world of sports still remains a masculine dominated environment, the coaches and trainers are most of the time men. Female athletes who face menstruation related problems might sometimes hesitate to mention them to their male mentors. A big taboo still surrounds discussing periods openly, especially in the realm of sports. As such, it is so important to orient and make male mentors more aware of periods and its effects. It is vital to break this taboo and create an open and safe space for women to freely discuss their periods. And hopefully more women coaches or physicians will enable athletes to be more comfortable sharing their condition and receive treatment.
All in all, the best support for female athletes is an army of understanding, inclusive, open and un-stigmatised coaches and physicians. With this mentality, it will help female athletes to more openly look at their professional career and health in the long run and not just aim for a moment of greatness at the cost of their long-term wellbeing.
Athlete’s and their health issues have been topics of ‘tabooed’ public discussions and negative media coverage. If more and more females are to be encouraged in the field of sports, we need to remember that they are athletes as well as women. Being an athlete must not make them ignore the fact that they are females and being a female must not restrain them from fulfilling their full potential of being a professional athlete. Despite continuously fighting against gender disparity, female athletes continue to strive to run a millisecond faster, swim a millisecond faster, or strain for a kilogram higher, just to avoid being categorized in the matter of sports by their gender.
So in line with the upcoming Olympics game, Saathi is planning to do Olympic inspired Challenges, where everyone is welcome and no one is discriminated against or tabooed against their gender and sexuality. Stay tuned on our social media platforms as we will soon announce our upcoming Olympic Inspired Games!
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Period- how they affect athletes & why are they monitored? Periods - how do they affect athletes & why are they monitored? - BBC Sport
This is how female Olympic athletes deal with their periods How Olympic athletes handle their periods: does it affect competition and training? (cosmopolitan.com)
Is it the last taboo! How sportswomen deal with periods Is it the last taboo? How sportswomen deal with periods - BBC News
12 Indian Female Athletes Rocking the Sports World: 12 Indian Female Athletes Rocking the Sports World (kreedon.com)
40 most powerful female athletes of all time: 40 Most Powerful Female Athletes of All Time | Glamour