Pushing for change: Elite athletes and motherhood

As more athletes return to competing after giving birth, there is hope for more equality in sport.

Female athlete jumping above the hurdle


The Tokyo Olympics has already been an Olympics of many firsts, including arenas without spectators. It’s also an Olympic Games in which the team GB has recorded the highest number of mothers competing.

One big change for breastfeeding mothers was brought forward by the Canadian basketball player Kim Boucher who asked via social media if she would be able to bring her three-month-old daughter with her to Tokyo. Just as is the case with many office jobs, there are no clear breastfeeding guidelines in place to support athletes. At first, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stated that it was unlikely that Boucher’s request would be accommodated. Following international media pressure the IOC allowed Boucher and other breastfeeding athletes to bring their children with them to Tokyo 2020. 

Olympic boxer Mandy Bujold is another Canadian athlete making history at Tokyo 2020. She almost saw her dream of competing this year fading away because the qualifying criteria included three tournaments which she could not attend due to her pregnancy. She brought her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which ruled that “the qualification criteria must include an accommodation for women who were pregnant or postpartum during the qualification period”.

For England, an athlete paving the way for many others is Helen Glover who became the first mother rowing for the British team at the Olympic Games.

Supporting athletes during the break and encouraging their return

Gender bias when it comes sport is marked and it does not come as a surprise that many federations and committees have faced accusations of sexism. Organisations like the IOC Women in Sport Commission have been helping to level the field, leading to equal gender representation in sports globally.

However, the lack of support during and after pregnancy makes it even more difficult for new mothers to compete at a professional level again. The athletes mentioned above have been remarkable and have made some real breakthroughs, but experts argue that the support needs to start before sportswomen get to the Olympic level.

For a long time, there has been a narrative that women should not exercise whilst pregnant. A recent systemic review of the research not only shows the benefits of exercising during and after pregnancy but, particularly for elite athletes, provides reassuring evidence regarding the safety of participating in sport.

Many athletes have also proven that pregnancy and giving birth do not stop them from competing at the highest levels. One of them is tennis champion Serena Williams who won the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant.

Williams’ story sparked a conversation around salary and policies for pregnant athletes and mothers. The Women’s Tennis Association now allows players to temporarily freeze their ranking and earned seeding position in case of injury, illness and pregnancy. For the latter, this period starts at the birth of the child and can last up to three years.

“These changes are designed to fully support players in their return to competition, while maintaining the highest standards of athletic competition and fairness,” WTA CEO and Chairman Steve Simon said in a statement in 2018.

Another athlete proving the sporting capabilities of mothers is American sprinter Allyson Felix who won her 12th gold medal at the 2019 World Championships only 10 months after giving birth to her daughter. Returning to the Olympics following her pregnancy, Felix broke her long-time sponsorship with Nike. Felix, joined by athletes Kara Goucher and Alysia Montaño openly spoke about how Nike reduced their sponsorship after they became pregnant and in the postpartum period, shedding a light on the treatment female athletes receive before and after pregnancy and forcing many sponsors to re-evaluate their policies.

Dr. Michelle Mottola, exercise physiologist, told the Guardian: “The postpartum period can potentially last up to a year afterwards. And, of course, everything depends on the woman, the birth and her training regimen. But scientific evidence suggests that, in some ways, she may find performance a bit easier during this period because of the changes to her heart and her lungs.” 

Indeed, with the right support and specific training designed for pregnancy or the postpartum period, many experts consider that female athletes should be able to continue their professional career without being forced to make a choice between that and motherhood.

There is still a long way to go, but as more athletes fight against the current system and corporations listen to their pleas, there is hope for a less discriminatory sporting environment.

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