Olympic moms are finally able to say it: Not only are they among the top athletes in the world—they’re great mothers too.
I jest only because it’s absurd that Olympic athletes are only now beginning to feel comfortable identifying themselves as mothers, a part of their biographies they’ve had to hide due to sexism.
According to the mothers who spoke to the Washington Post, women have historically faced pressure to put off having children until their Olympic careers were over. Women who nonetheless chose to have kids wouldn’t talk about it much, wary of stigma and the likelihood that they would be denied professional opportunities.
“The sporting industry is a male-dominated industry, and [becoming] a mother was sort of looked down on, like, ‘Ugh, great, there goes her career,’” Kara Goucher, an Olympic runner and with a son, told the Post. “I remember trying to downplay it and not acknowledge it. Whereas now I feel like we’re acknowledging [it]. … But at the time? We weren’t there yet.”
Goucher doesn’t have to go back to far to recall a time when things were different. In 2019, she and Alysia Montaño, another Olympic runner, called out Nike for reducing athletes’ sponsorship payments because they were pregnant: Athletes’ contracts specified that Nike could cut their pay for not meeting a specific performance threshold, and there were no exceptions carved out for new or expectant mothers. As a result, Goucher planned to run a half-marathon just three months after giving birth to her son so she could continue bringing in income for her family.
“Returning to competition so quickly was a bad choice for me,” Goucher told the Times. “And looking back and knowing that I wasn’t the kind of mother that I want to be—it’s gut wrenching.”
This is another common theme: Forced to choose between work and parenting, Olympic moms don’t always feel like great moms. They spend much of their time training and competing away from home, and the covid regulations on this year’s (ill-advised) Olympic games raised the possibility that some mothers would have to be away from their children even longer, or otherwise drop out of the games.
Aliphine Tuliamuk, a long-distance runner, told the Post she was only recently granted the ability to bring her 7-month-old baby—whom she’s still breastfeeding—with her to Tokyo, where otherwise “foreign spectators” are banned due to the pandemic. Other nursing infants will be permitted, too.
“In a way, I feel like I’m that turning point,” Tuliamuk told the Post, reflecting on how she fits into the arc toward (hopefully) progress for Olympic moms. “I’m the point between the past, where female athletes wouldn’t talk about their pregnancies because they were afraid they would lose their sponsorships, and the future. Now other athletes will be able to look at my story and say if she did it, I can do it, too. It’s a new era.”