23 March, 2021 | Posted by Dr. Susan Giblin

The Female Athlete

Gender issues in sport have always existed. In fact, the further you go back, the worse they get. But over recent years they’ve shifted into greater focus. The realities of the wrongs taking place behind the scenes are no longer being dismissed or ignored the way they were in the past. 

Sports is a male-dominated industry because the infrastructure of sports was constructed at a time when women had very little opportunity outside of the home. 

Although things have gradually gotten better over the years, the need for the 20x20 campaign still existed in 2018. 20x20 was created by Sarah Colgan and Heather Thornton of Along Came a Spider. It was an initiative to create 20% more media coverage of women in sport, 20% more female participation behind the scenes of sports and 20% more attendance at women’s games and events by the year 2020. Their success manifested itself in different ways, most notably six new attendance records were set at women’s sporting events and 76 sporting bodies across Ireland signed the 20x20 charter. 

Ireland’s success stories in Sports have garnered greater attention, from our hockey team qualifying for the Olympics to our international soccer players being featured in national media outlets. 

As the media coverage rises, we can all share in the on-field successes of our star athletes. But we can also be made aware of the issues that female athletes continue to face that simply don’t exist for their male counterparts. Something as simple as being paid adequately remains a problem, Aine O’Gorman called for an end to the pay-to-play culture that still exists for women in Ireland. Getting paid properly is the most basic requirement for any professional. 

Unfortunately, the sinister nature of how female athletes are treated extends past the purely professional aspects. 

Reported instances of abuse and neglect within women’s sport have been on the rise as part of the growing media coverage. Either intentionally because of a misguided coaching style or by omission because of ignorance of the process of coaching elite female athletes. The mismanagement of female athletes has been associated with the so-called aesthetic sports (gymnastics, figure skating) for longer than the last decade. But now more middle-distance and endurance athletes are coming forward to speak about how they were treated in toxic environments. They’re pushed towards slender figures and low BMI for visual appeal rather than athletic performance. 

Mary Cain was 16 years old when she joined the Oregon Project at Nike. 

I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto [Salazar] and endorsed by Nike,” Cain spoke up about breaking five bones, not having a period for three years and self-harm after being emotionally abused about her weight while training to be an Olympic athlete. 

Other athletes supported Cain’s claims, including Amy Yoder Begley who remembers being told she had the ‘biggest butt on the starting line. 

These are vulnerable, developing college athletes aspiring to the Olympics, aspiring to success at the elite level of international sport in all its forms. They need to be treated like elite athletes and pushed towards that standard in the same way that men are. That doesn’t require emotional abuse or using someone’s body image as a motivational tool. Abusing athletes and presenting sports as the only thing that matters has been a hallmark of bad coaching no matter the country, the era or the sport. 

Promoting obsessive behaviours to athletes, even at the highest level for both men and women, is dangerous. For as long as sports have existed, the obsessive athlete has existed. Oftentimes they exist on their own. Other times they’re pushed to that point by a coach trying to erase his own past failings. It’s accepted by men in sports for men in sports. It’s even celebrated and held up as the prototype of what a successful athlete needs to be. Just look to any of the stories about Michael Jordan and the glorification of his behaviour when it comes to competition later in life. Something that is inarguably unhealthy. 

And Jordan is the exception who achieved endless amounts of success in his sport while taking on that obsessive mindset. 

More high-profile athletes are coming forward to raise awareness of the danger that introducing and promoting obsessive behaviours can have on athletes. For women, losing menstruation has been considered a hallmark of training hard rather than a sign of something wrong. Stress fractures to overtrained and under-nourished bones are a frequent problem. 

Unfortunately, these relentless training regimes can induce short-term performance gains. But the longer-term implications can be detrimental to the athlete’s performance and health. The physical and psychological problems don’t justify the short-term lack of body fat. Researchers at the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences found that 46.7% of elite female athletes in sports that “emphasised leanness” had clinically diagnosed eating disorders. 21% of women who were not elite athletes had clinically diagnosed eating disorders. 

In 2014, the International Olympic Committee became concerned with the imbalance of energy in athletes. They developed a new tool to help medical professionals (team physicians) evaluate an athlete’s health. They could better diagnose if an athlete was in a state of low energy availability, defined as a “mismatch between the athlete’s energy intake (diet) and the energy expended in exercise.”  

The Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports Clinical Assessment Tool (RED S CAT) serves as a guide for when sport participation should be modified or withheld completely from at-risk athletes. 

Whether that means an athlete is suffering from heart issues, low bone density, abnormal hormonal or metabolic function, this risk assessment tool is an important step in identifying at-risk athletes, both male and female. Part of taking the next step moving forward is acknowledging the eating disorders that male runners can develop from the same treatment. The conversation around eating disorders and athletes has traditionally focused on women.  

Physiological requirements for female athletes are inherently different to male athletes. Unfortunately, there is limited scientific foundation for guiding female development from a sports science perspective. That is because there is an almost exclusive focus on male sports when it comes to physiological research. 

More dedicated research is required to focus on the optimal performance regimens for female athletes. Simply adopting or marginally modifying male training patterns, which has been the conventionally accepted trend, does not work. We know that this approach is not only sub-optimal but also detrimental to female development both in performance and away from physical activity. 

We have a very long way to go to truly understand optimal performance, particularly for female athletes. There are positive initiatives taking place to promote awareness, research and equality for female athletes and we can continue to add to it. Our tutors at Portobello Institute are dedicated to mentoring and supporting the next generation of women in sport. We want to directly make elite sports performance for women better and contribute to the growing research available to supplement what needs to be a worldwide effort. 

If you want to join us, our programmes are designed with the next generation of sports scientists in mind. You might be interested in our BSc Sports Science and Performance Analysis or MSc Sports Performance Analysis programmes. 

For more information, you can contact course advisor Johanna Shaw at jo.shaw@portobelloinstitute.com or call 01-892-0024.