Rio Olympics 2016: Fu Yuanhui, the China swimmer breaks period taboo and stereotypes in sport

While the underlying sexism in reporting of the Olympics has been making news, there remain a number of women who are giving their best at the ongoing Rio Olympics 2016 – breaking records and barriers, winning medals and accolades.

From the Cinderella story of Simone Biles, the teen who clinched five gymnastics medals to swimmer Katinka Hosszú, who shattered the world record for 400m individual medley and bagged four medals.

But the latest Olympic hero for China is not even a gold medalist.

Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui has broken an invisible, but very much present, barrier by frankly talking about having her period while competing in Rio, and the impact it had on her performance.

Long a taboo subject for female athletes, the 20-year-old explained frankly why she'd looked tired at the end of the 4x100-metre medley relay, where the Chinese team placed fourth.

"I didn't swim well. I'm not worthy of my team-mates," she told a Chinese television presenter, who then asked whether a stomach ache had affected her performance. "It's because I got my period yesterday," Fu said.

Her simple, honest explanation immediately went viral, sparking a mixed response for the bronze medallist on Chinese social media.

Here's a clip of her talking about it after her race:

"When I have my period, I sometimes can't even walk right or breath. And you managed to swim, bravo!" said one supporter on China's Twitter-like Weibo.

"Did I hear right — she really talked about her period? This girl has the courage to talk about anything," another fan wrote.

Others were less sympathetic to Fu, who first endeared herself to millions with her unabashedly overjoyed response to swimming a personal best and winning a bronze medal for the 100m backstroke.

"The state spends a lot of money on her — and she's talking about her period? Good joke, but why do you have to play the idiot in front of the whole world?" wrote one critic.

"Your mothers, aunts, grandmothers all had periods — it's natural to talk about this in 2016," retorted another Weibo-user.

Fu, who has become the biggest Chinese star of Rio, with her over-the-top facial expressions inspiring emoticons and going viral online, has more than six million followers to her Weibo account and been hailed by Chinese state media for showing another side to the more typical robotic athlete stereotype.

As she flew back into Beijing airport, she was greeted by crowds of fans clamouring for a selfie.

Fu has always had an enthusiastic pool-side manner — a video from the World Championships in Kazan in 2015 shows her grinning with joy and shaking her head on the podium, alongside her more serious team mates. In another video that has since gone viral, she is seen tugging at her swimsuit then wincing in pain when it snaps back on her chest. "Even if you have large breasts, these swimsuits really flatten everything!" she says, referring to the super-tight suits swimmers must wear for competitions.

Fu Yuanhui is popular for simply being herself — unafraid to show her unfiltered, wacky facial expressions and candid words.

Rio Olympics 2016: Fu Yuanhui, the China swimmer breaks period taboo and stereotypes in sport

Fu Yuanhui. Getty Images

Her smile lit up the deck as she took a victory lap with the bronze medal around her neck for her performance in the 100-meter backstroke. She didn't care that it wasn't gold, even if her country has long pushed athletes to get to the top of the podium.

As if to prove the point, she thanked herself.

"I want to tell myself that... your perseverance and efforts in the past have not been in vain," Fu said. "Though I didn't win first place, I have already surpassed myself."

Her candor — paired with animated facial expressions — is a rarity among Chinese elite athletes, who have spent so much time in the rigid state sport system that their vocabulary is often robotically limited by the state parlance that puts the country's honor and national pride first.

Just six years ago, a senior Chinese official chided short-track speedskater Zhou Yang for failing to thank the country first and only mentioning her parents after winning gold in the 1,500-meter event at the Vancouver Olympics.

For decades, the Chinese public has been obsessed with Olympic gold medals but turned their nose up on anything less than the top spot on the podium. They even were downright cruel to athletes who failed to win gold and considered it a shame to come only second.

The adoration piled upon Fu as her followers on social media swelled to nearly 5 million from 56,000 this week, the latest sign that China is moving away from the gold-medal mentality and starting to respect sportsmanship and athletes as individuals.

"The Chinese society has indeed changed. We still have the collective desire to remain first-class in the world, but we are respecting individual rights," opined the state-run newspaper Global Times — known for its nationalistic stance — on Fu's soaring popularity.

"Although Fu Yuanhui is an exception, it marks changes in the generation of younger athletes. The echoing applause by the Chinese public marks a shift in the societal awareness," wrote the editorial, suggesting that China's politics is partly to be blamed for the restraints and reservation often exhibited by Chinese athletes.

Born in an average family in the prospering eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, Fu began to swim at 5 when her parents hoped the water exercise could improve her health and alleviate her asthma, according to a 2015 Chinese media report. Her talent emerged, and she was recruited into the municipal swimming team. Considered a genius in the pool, Fu competed in London but came home empty-handed. Unabashed, she reportedly joked she had drunk enough of the "foot-washing water" of other swimmers.

Fu apparently has not considered the Olympic gold a must in her swimming career, a departure from state athletes who are tasked with winning for the sake of the country.

On her 20th birthday in January, she posted this on her social media account: "I know for what I live. I know the kind of life I want. It's simple. Joy. Loving Heart. Gratitude."

"This is what I want. Being outstanding or not, it does not matter."

Indeed, it is refreshing to see a woman athlete break through so many stereotypes. Fu Yuanhui is indeed one of the more positive stories of Rio Olympics 2016.

With inputs from agencies 

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Updated Date: Aug 17, 2016 12:12:55 IST

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