Controversy. Every Olympic games has some and the Rio games live up to this legacy. Before the games, Russian athletes were embroiled in a doping scandal that cost many the opportunity to compete and saw those who did singled out for criticism, as Amar Khoday discussed. And Irish boxer Ed Willes lost a match to a Russian boxer when everyone expected him to win. He then gave profane gestures to the judges, made similarly profane comments about the International Olympic Committee, and took to Twitter to ask Vladimir Putin how much Putin had paid in a bribe.
In each of these instances, the controversy involved was the result of some type of choice. And yet, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui courted controversy for discussing something over which she has no control – menstruation. Yes, Ms. Fu made a statement and became the center of controversy due to an aspect of biology that still evokes cringes and misunderstanding the world over.
Ms. Fu, a well-known Chinese swimmer, competed in the women’s 4 x 100 meter medley relay and neither she nor her teammates met performance expectations. When the race was over, a reporter interviewed the team about their performances and Ms. Fu, in visible pain, stated that she was experiencing the effects of her menstrual cycle. This was a normal occurrence for Ms. Fu and indeed for female athletes regardless of their sport.
What is a normal occurrence became an online and social media sensation. Comments ranged from support for Ms. Fu’s shedding light on menstruation in a public forum to shock that a woman could swim while menstruating, with some expressing surprise that the water was not bloody. The simple answer to the latter issue is that Ms. Fu uses a tampon during competition – the more complex aspect is the acceptability of tampon use, especially in China where they tend to be viewed with disfavor.
While in Chinese society the subject of menstruation is largely taboo, it should also be noted that this topic is taboo throughout the world, even in countries where “feminine products” are advertised on television. Indeed, it was only last year that British tennis play Heather Watson discussed the same issue of menstruation impacting her playing performance to an audience that seemed not to have thought of it and was divided as to whether it should be discussed.
In many ways, there is nothing notable about Ms. Fu’s story – menstruation is a naturally occurring phenomenon among women in every country in the world. Despite this, women have become competitive in sports at a high level and sports do not have exception clauses for female competitors due to menstruation cycles. Indeed, for those who have played competitive sports this is not even something one would think about. The community of female athletes has little choice than to accept that biology is a part of being a woman and that this does not negate one’s ability to be an athlete or to compete at any time. There might be commiseration over the physical effects of menstruation or even sharing of “feminine products” but that is where acknowledgement of the issue tends to stop.
Ms. Fu’s story is notable, however, because it highlights the tensions between the community of female athletes and larger society. Female athletes must live as part of a larger society no matter their nationality and represent that society when they compete internationally. They march in open ceremony processions, sometimes carry national flags, wear national uniforms, and win competitions for their country. The ability to represent one’s country at the international level is an honor regardless one’s gender. At the same time, the society these athletes represent often does not understand them as both athletes and women or applies conscious or unconscious gender biases to them. The tension lies in bridging the areas in which there is misunderstanding and this is what makes Ms. Fu’s actions noteworthy.
In explaining the reasons for her performance, Ms. Fu told the natural truth and started a popular reaction that provided a moment of education. This is perhaps the best controversy the Olympic games can hope for!