• Nnaemeka Ali, O.M.I

Being a Woman and an Athlete, a Precarious Cohabitation

Osaka manifesting her in frustration during one of her her matches against the Czech, Marketa Vondrousova at Ariake Tennis Park in Tokyo. | REUTERS

As more women keep on sharing their difficulties as women athletes, it seems the hour has come to examine what it means to be a woman and an athlete. This text is not about sexism in sports. We all agree that sexism is a crime and should be considered as one. But here, I want to look at how being a woman (with all its hormonal experiences) is viewed in sports. I know that some people might turn this around to question women’s suitability in specific functions and sports. But I think that will be unfair as the question should be, how does one perform particular roles while coping with both one’s hormonal realities and the intersectionality that cross her gender, race and class? We can observe this more among black women athletes. The experiences of some of them have alerted us to reconsider our knowledge of what it means to be a woman and an athlete.

When Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, Roland Garros, many people never took the time to consider her both as a human being, a person of colour, and a woman before being an athlete. They only saw a tennis player who has neither emotion nor hormones. No one thought she could be struggling with her identity as both black and Japanese. The problem started when they fined her for refusing to appear at the press conferences. Many reminded her that “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” But we also know that the payer should never call for a tune neither the pipe nor the piper can produce. No one should ask an athlete to be a superhuman or to stop being a woman and from a minority group.

These recent developments call to ask what we see when we see women athletes.

  • Do they, like every other woman, undergo their menstrual cycles, for example?

  • How does a woman in her cycle navigate through the menstrual cycle and the heavy training involved?

  • What are the psychological effects of battling with the desire to win and the difficulties involved in such cycles?

  • What does it mean to be the model for every young lady from their race or country?

In a research conducted at the School of Health and Life Sciences, the University of West of Scotland, Lanarkshire, the UK , we observe some scary outcomes. The research objective was to explore the past and present experiences and perceptions of the menstrual cycle of athletes with its impact on sporting performance.

They interviewed 15 international female rugby players. And according to their findings, almost all athletes (93%) reported menstrual cycle-related symptoms. 33% of them perceived heavy menstrual bleeding and 67% considered that these symptoms impaired their performances. In addition, 2/3 of the athletes self-medicated to alleviate symptoms, etc.

Once they gathered all their data, they grouped their findings under:

1. Symptoms

They observed that the athletes had physiological and psychological menstrual cycle-related symptoms such as dysmenorrhea, flooding, reduced energy levels, worry, distraction, fluctuating emotions, decreased motivation, etc.

2. Impacts

Their menstrual cycles impacted different aspects of their daily lives and performance, including negative and neutral responses, mood swings, etc.

According to the researchers, it is imperative to:

  1. Highlights individual athlete’s responses to menstrual “issues.”

  2. Emphasize the need for clinicians and support staff to undertake menstrual cycle profiling, monitoring, and

  3. Continue to develop awareness, openness, knowledge and understanding of the menstrual cycle.”

And more to these hormone-related problems, it’s essential to understand that in addition to being an athlete and a woman, being a woman from minority diversity makes intersectionality more complicated. The reason is that they also face racial and cultural challenges. No wonder both Simon Biles and Naomi Osaka expressed the hardship in terms of pressure. Miss Osaka said, “I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this.” And in the words of Miss Biles: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn, sometimes it’s hard, hahaha!”

• Findlay RJ, Macrae EHR, Whyte IY, et al. How the menstrual cycle and menstruation affect sporting performance: experiences and perceptions of elite female rugby players British Journal of Sports Medicine 2020; 54:1108–1113.

Photo Credit: The Reuter