From the ashes of the Olympics emerges a handful of breakout stars — champions like the indomitable Simone Biles, athletes with extraordinary backstories like Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, and larger-than-life personalities like China's Fu Yuanhui.
Last week, Fu became the unexpected darling of the Olympics when a Chinese journalist told her that she won third place, not fourth, in the 100-meter backstroke. Fu's candid reaction, full of exhilaration, endeared her to viewers around the world.
Then on Sunday, Fu made headlines again for a casual remark she made that held significant weight. In an interview after China placed fourth in the 4x100 medley relay, Fu said, clutching her stomach, "I didn't perform very well today; I feel like I let my teammates down."
When the interviewer noted that Fu — who was visibly in agony — looked like she was having stomach pains, the swimmer said:
It's because my period came yesterday, so I'm feeling a little exhausted. But this isn't an excuse, I still didn't swim well enough.
And with those few words, Fu shattered the taboo about periods both in the sporting world and in China, where menstruation is an "unspeakable issue in the public for women," according to a Chinese blog post quoted by Quartz.
Social media lit up with praises for Fu, particularly on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, where users lauded her openness. Quartz reported that many Weibo users questioned why there was no blood in the swimming pool if Fu was on her period, only to find out about tampons.
In China, where female virginity is highly valued, many women believe that using tampons can break their hymens, and therefore steer clear of it. One recent study concluded that only about 2 percent of Chinese women use tampons, compared to 42 percent in the United States.
But the taboo surrounding a woman's menstrual cycle isn't confined to the east. It remains a hush-hush topic in many western countries, too. People go out of their way to avoid mentioning periods, replacing it instead with euphemisms like "Aunt Flo," or "that time of the month." The stigma of periods being dirty and distasteful persists. In Georgia, recently, a gym reportedly posted a sign banning women on their periods from using the swimming pool.
Adding to Fu's openness on her menstrual cycle is the nonchalance in which she mentioned it.
The push to destigmatize periods has been championed by other female athletes, too. Annabel Croft, the former British tennis star, has criticized the silence on menstruation in sports. And last year, musician Kiran Gandhi, who is a drummer for singer M.I.A., made the news when she ran the London Marathon free flowing on her period.
"Culture is happy to speak about and objectify the parts of the body that can be sexually consumed by others," Gandhi later said in an interview. "But the moment we talk about something that is not for the enjoyment of others, like a period, everyone becomes deeply uncomfortable."