What women experienced within the cycling high performance environment was “preventable”, and voices of experts and athletes alike have been “silenced” on the subject of women’s health in sport, leading sociologist Professor Holly Thorpe says.
Thorpe, a member of the WHISPA (women’s health in sport) group and a leading researcher into women’s experiences and culture in sport, said issues relating to women within the high performance sport environment were raised as far back as 2015 and highlighted again in a 2021 survey of elite female athletes.
The survey involving more than 200 athletes found an “urgent need for strategies to address issues” related to women’s health.
It found stress fractures and concussion were common amongst the group, 11% reported being diagnosed with depression and anxiety – which is lower than previously reported statistics, suggesting an under-diagnosis of female athletes – 73% felt unhappy with their bodies, 15% had disordered eating practices and 73% believed sport participation was associated with pressure to have a specific physical appearance.
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It also found athletes struggled reporting health issues with their mainly male coaches, doctors and support staff, and the majority of female athletes are likely to experience menstrual symptoms that had the potential to impact their performance.
Nearly half had iron deficiencies and one third reported their menstrual cycle was impacted by training volume.
Many of those experiences have been highlighted in the review into cycling and the high performance sport environment, which was established following the death of Olympic cyclist Olivia Podmore in August 2021, and released on Monday.
It found “gender biases” within the programme, inadequate provision for basic issues that commonly affect women, including menstrual issues, nutrition, and pregnancy, and found HPSNZ’s position was that female health care “unrelated to performance needs” should be dealt with by athletes’ private GPs.
Thorpe said HPSNZ’s stance is a “red flag”. She said the findings of the review weren’t surprising, but it’s disappointing it’s taken a “horrible tragedy” to highlight the inequalities women face.
“Women’s voices and women’s knowledge have not been respected and valued,” she said.
“It shows there’s not a willingness to engage in the complexities, or intersections of health, wellbeing, performance and gender.
“If people have been listening, and responding, and willing to lean into the processes of change … this could have been preventable.”
Thorpe said the voices of female scientists, health professionals, and athletes, who have spoken out, called for change and identified problems within the sector and who have been wanting to be part of creating solutions have been silenced and ignored.
“The group of voices in this area has been growing. These are people working in the environment – sports doctors, sports scientists – people with a lot of respect and mana, and still when they are raising concerns they are not being heard.
“It’s not like these conversations haven’t been had. It’s not like the opportunities for CNZ and HPSNZ to educate themselves, to have these conversations, to be research informed, to hear athletes speaking on these topics and to create change weren’t there.
“The issue is they were ignoring all of those messages.”
Thorpe was part of a group who organised and hosted the first health symposium for women in sport involving more than 200 leading researchers, international keynote speakers, athletes, administrators and coaches in 2015, held at the Cambridge cycling velodrome.
Further symposiums into women’s health in 2017 and 2019, workshops, research and the formation of the WHISPA group – involving 19 experts who volunteer their time – followed.
Research into the Cambridge centralised programme was also undertaken, and highlighted many of the findings of the review, including athletes struggling in the “bubble” while being away from family and support networks.
Thorpe said the issues raised in the review aren’t exclusive to cycling. The issues are sport sector wide. It’s also women’s voices that are speaking up about welfare concerns.
“The women that are speaking out, the women raising concerns are the tip of the iceberg. They are the incredibly brave ones. The whole system of sport is they are taught from a very young age to accept it the way it is. They are taught to be almost voiceless.
“They are ones who can no longer endure these systems which are uneven relations of power, gendered dynamics, gendered forms of power, gendered abuses of power.”
She does feel hopeful as more voices continue to speak up about the treatment and experiences of women, and hopes the cycling review won’t “get dusty in a closet somewhere”.
“There is a responsibility to look after the health and wellbeing of your athletes … ultimately that translates into performance.”