Outside of a rainy day when you desperately want to get out of plans, there’s really no good time to get your period. Winter, spring, summer, or fall, it’s a messy pain in the butt, and the combination of cramps, bloating, back pain, boob pain, and—oh!—steady outflow of vaginal blood can make even the most fierce woman feel subpar. But arguably the worst time to get your period may just be while competing in the Olympics.
This week Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui experienced this unfortunate twist of fate with all eyes on her at the summer Games in Rio. On Sunday, her team came in fourth during the women’s 4×100-meter medley relay, and it’s hard to argue that Yuanhui didn’t contribute. When confronted by a reporter about her lackluster performance, the 20-year-old told the truth: She had her period.
After the race, Yuanhui’s teammates were interviewed by China Central Television (CCTV) while she sat off to the side in apparent pain. When the reporter approached the swimmer to check on her, Yuanhui admitted that she felt she “didn’t swim well today,” and said, “I let my teammates down.” She was clutching her stomach at the time, which she later explained: “Because my period came yesterday, I’m feeling a bit weak, but this is not an excuse.”
Last week, Yuanhui was in decidedly better spirits after winning a bronze medal in the women’s 100-meter backstroke. (The moment she found out she earned a medal is one of the most aww-inspiring of the games so far.) But after the unsuccessful relay, her spirits were as damp as her swim cap, and while admitting she had her period on television may not seem like that big a deal—back home, it was considered a bold statement.
I recently explored the implications of menstruating during the single most important event of most athletes’ careers. Western gynecologists and researchers I spoke with for the story agreed there simply hasn’t been enough research to definitively say how a woman’s period impacts her athletic performance. One doctor said an athlete’s best bet is to avoid the situation altogether by taking a form of hormonal birth control that results in no visible period. But for some cultures, like China’s, this option might not even be on the radar.
In 2015, China produced 85 billion sanitary pads, the Los Angeles Times reported back in March—and zero tampons. Nada. Zilch. China’s first domestic tampon brand is set to launch this month, in fact, thanks to the efforts of a (male) electrical engineer named Ye Deliang who is hoping to create a market for the menstrual product, which was first introduced in the United States some 80 years ago. Why? In part thanks to a lack of sex education, as USA Today reports, which has led to rampant misinformation when it comes to periods. One sexologist told the paper “We have a saying in Chinese that, ‘I would rather starve to death than lose my chastity,’” referring to the common belief that tampons lead to virginity loss.
While it’s unclear what kind of menstrual products Yuanhui used during her swim, it’s clear that she has, by Chinese standards, an above-average comfort with speaking about her period. According to Chinese social network Weibo (via translation from Shanghaist), fans couldn’t believe Yuanhui’s admission. “Wow she still has to swim when she’s on her period? This is heartbreaking,” one wrote. “The first athlete that admitted she is on her period,” wrote another.
Since the start of the Olympics, Yuanhui has been building her reputation as a relatable Olympian: While you probably can’t swim 100 meters in less than one minute, you’ve definitely stuffed your face with cupcakes and burped a bunch (which she did on a livestream last week). She’s also become renowned for her delightfully cartoonish facial expressions.
But even in western cultures where tampons are bountiful, women are still judged for acknowledging that a period has negatively affected performance. Former British tennis champion Annabel Croft recently called menstruation talk “taboo” in her sport after another player blamed her own loss partially on intense period symptom. Croft said that “Women’s monthly issues seem to be one of those subjects that gets swept under the carpet and is a big secret…I think women do suffer in silence.”
With the help of athletes like Yuanhui, perhaps the silence will finally be broken.