Olympic worries for female athletes

Former Olympic sprinter Jeanette Kwakye offers a very personal view on the concerns facing athletes – and their supporters – heading to Rio this summer.

I’m a mum. My little boy is four months old. I’m an Olympian. I reached the 100 metres final in Beijing and was on course to compete in London until an Achilles injury wrecked that ambition. I’m retired now, but if I was being asked to compete for my country in Rio this summer – hand on heart – I don’t know what I would do.

Looking back, I was lucky. My focus was purely on performance and making sure that I would make the country proud. I will never forget the preparation, determination and graft I put in. I thought that was hard. But the stresses the women of Team GB are facing now goes way beyond anything I have known.

A trip to Rio this summer for the Olympics and Paralympics could come at an unimaginable cost. When I competed in Beijing I had to worry about fitness, nerves, the opposition – the usual suspects. When our female athletes fly to Brazil, they will have to contend with a battery of deadly serious issues. With outcomes that could last a lifetime.

They say athletes live in a bubble, but you’d have to live in a bubble on the moon not to be disturbed by the news stories that have become attached to the sport in the recent past. Specifically, the Zika virus, the exposure of rampant drug cheating, corruption at the top of athletics, and a new ruling on transgender athletes.

The Rio organisers are insisting that the mosquito-borne Zika virus, linked to brain damage in babies, will not force the cancellation of the Games. But the World Health Organisation have labelled the pandemic an “emergency” and the effects of the virus have reportedly reached 23 countries. The virus has been linked to microcephaly in babies. Pregnant women and those likely to become pregnant within a few months are considered at risk.

Can you imagine? You’re a female athlete heading to Rio to try and achieve a long-awaited ambition. What could possibly be more important? Family. What about the athlete reaching the twilight years of a career and planning a family post-Olympics. How would she feel? Though the head of the Rio Organising Committee has recently announced there is ‘zero’ risk because he doesn’t expect any female athletes to be pregnant. Well, they might be. Or soon to be. And they might have noted the news out of America that there is some evidence, yet to be confirmed, that Zika can be sexually transmitted. It’s a minefield.

As a recent first-time mother, I am seeing this in a new light. I, too, will be heading to Rio to work on the Paralympics and I’m finding myself trawling the news daily for updates. I can’t help but think about how long I may have to wait before adding to my family. That will go for all other members of the press corps and support staff, too.

It also appears that female athletes have been hit particularly hard by the Russian (and who knows who else?) doping scandal. Many elite athletes will tell you that they don’t concern themselves with thinking about who may be doping in their event. However, the scale of the recent allegations has been so widespread it’s hard to put out of your mind. Even on the start-line. We might have been able to convince ourselves once that it was just the odd rogue individual injecting themselves in the toilet. But to find out that the doping – in Russia at least – has been systematic and backed by the very people in power who should have protected clean athletes, is truly sickening.

Jessica Ennis-Hill, Lisa Dobriskey and Jenny Meadows are among the athletes who have been brave enough to be vocal about the participation of Russians in future competitions. They should be heeded. New head honcho of the IAAF, Lord Coe, has plenty of work to do. First to regain the trust of the athletes, and then to re-engage the fans and make them believe what they’re seeing is real.

Even the new ruling on transgender athletes by the International Olympic Committee seems destined to cause confusion. The ruling states that transgender athletes should be allowed to compete in the Olympics, and other international events, without undergoing sex reassignment surgery – as long as their testosterone levels are below a certain level for one year before competition.

But, what does this actually mean? The cases may be unbelievably few – although the Iranian women’s football team reportedly field eight players born as men in their line-up – but there is no clear information about other potential advantages athletes transitioning from male to female would hold. Muscle mass? Larger lung capacity? Bone density? There are a host of questions, as yet unanswered, that female athletes may not express for fear of appearing insensitive.

It’s hard to say this. It is easy to be misunderstood. I do not wish anything other than a free and fulfilled life to anyone in the transgender community. I am just concerned that in this specific area of elite women’s sport the physiological implications remain unclear. Female athletes deserve to be reassured. They deserve to be taken into consideration. It’s their lives, and their careers, that are most immediately affected.

It all adds up to a very uncertain, in some ways frightening, situation. I wouldn’t want to be in the position of deciding whether or not I risk my health, or that of my future children, for the opportunity to represent my country at an Olympic games. I also wouldn’t want to be on the start-line thinking about whether or not we are all on a level playing field.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just about talent and performance anymore. Gone are the days when you just worried about your sit-ups. Now it’s corruption scandals, gender politics and intercontinental pandemics. It’s worrying about whether it is safe to go at all.


Jeanette Kwakye is a former international athlete who holds the British Indoor 60m record, and in 2008 became the first Briton to reach a women’s 100m Olympic final since 1984. Since retiring from athletics in 2013, Jeanette, a qualified journalist, has worked for the BBC and Sky Sports as a sports reporter as well as writing on women’s sporting issues for the Guardian. Jeanette’s latest articles

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