Sinead Kissane: Novak Djokovic's talk of hormones opens door on taboo topic
Get up off your knees Novak Djokovic and quit the apologies because you did women in sport a small favour this week.
Not the part where you talked about equal pay and suggested that male players should earn more because they generate more money - an opinion, it seems, you will forever be apologising for unless you single-handedly end inequality and world poverty. But, in a strange way, you did women in sport a service when you mentioned the words which make nearly everyone cringe with embarrassment: women and their hormones.
When Djokovic was asked for his views on the comments of tennis the menace Raymond Moore (Moore said women's tennis "rides on the coat-tails" of the men's game and that female players should "get down on (their) knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born"), he said what he thought about unequal pay before going off on a tangent about women's biology. Because in the eyes of Djokovic (right), it seems women's bodies and unequal pay are inextricably linked. "It's knowing what they have to go through with their bodies, and their bodies are much different than men's bodies. They have to go through a lot of different things that we don't have to go through. You know, the hormones and different stuff, we don't need to go into details," Djokovic said as he searched for the proverbial panic button. "Many of them, you know, they kind of have to sacrifice for certain periods of time, you know, the family time or decisions they have to make with their own bodies, you know in order to play the tennis and to play the professional sport."
Plenty have dined out on Djokovic's comments since and commented that a man should never mention female biology when talking about women in sport. It's condescending, derogatory, sexist, uncomfortable, unrelated, unsubstantiated, unfair and undermines a sportswoman.
If a man-ager started saying at a press conference how menstrual cycles were affecting his female players, he would probably be accused of being a woman-hating misogynist and sacked quicker than he could say "but I'm just stating facts here!".
You might even hear the kind of guffawing that went on when Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill joked about his players' wives and girlfriends and 'who hot and who's not' at a press conference this week. So talking about how beautiful/ugly 'WAGS' are can be talked about in public. But women's "problems", for example menstrual cycles/periods - are you kidding me? The first rule in sport is you do not talk about periods. The second rule is you DO NOT talk about periods.
Djokovic's comments caused outrage because they were made in the context of equal pay. But what if the context is how menstruation affects the performance of a sportswoman. Sure, talking about this makes people uncomfortable and it is culturally seen as a private matter. But it is a real taboo in sport, in particular, because historically the framework for how sports people are portrayed was set by men. Men don't have menstrual cycles and neither did the majority of people who reported on sport in the past.
Enter women into the equation but the terms of reference have long been set: the effects of a menstrual cycle on a woman's performance are rarely mentioned because it is something men have never had to deal with.
On top of that, women want to be treated the same, and men don't have to talk about stuff like menstruation so why should women? So any mention of a female-specific problem like this could be viewed as an excuse, as inappropriate, uncomfortable, unrelated, unsubstantiated and undermine a sportswoman. But why should talking about menstruation be viewed as a weakness? An admission it had an effect on performance isn't an excuse, it's a reason and shouldn't be viewed as being anti-feminist either. Women shouldn't have to make apologies for the way their bodies are built or told to suck it up because that's just the way things have always been done around here.
It is slowly changing. A few years ago, British tennis player Heather Watson said she lost in the first round of the Australian Open because of "girl things". Petra Kvitova agreed that when female players have their periods "it's difficult" to train and play. Research in the UK last year found that more than half of 789 female athletes surveyed said their menstrual cycle impacts their performance and training. The Menstrual Cycle and Sport Performance literature review, which was published by the IAAF in 2013, stated: "While a stable endocrinological condition is observed in males, the large variations between the follicular phase and luteal phase in women's (menstrual) cycles make it difficult to identify a comparable stable condition, which has practical implications for training and competition."
In one of the few books about women's team sports in this country, Ireland out-half Nora Stapleton told author Kate Rowan in Six Nations, Two Stories how menstruation affected players during one particular training session. "There are times if everybody is synced, that a training session is going to be awful - too many bitches! I'd say the management noticed it. I think one training session we came off the pitch and it could have been a captain's run and everyone was at each other. We were dropping every single ball and I remember the management looking around and I was thinking 'They don't really know what's going on'. I think it turned out that about 10 of us … (had their periods)."
So, do you see menstruation as an excuse or as a legitimate reason for poor training? Do you think mentioning it undermines these women as athletes? It does nothing of the sort. I hope others follow these women and don't hold back about how they feel for fear of how it will be perceived.