The athlete-mothers advocating for the other athlete-mothers

Allyson Felix e Quanera Hayes con le loro figlie dopo la qualificazione per le Olimpiadi ai 400m

Deciding to become a mother at the top of her game (quite literally), a female athlete will most likely stumble. It does not matter if your name is Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams or Allyson Felix. Nor how many medals you obtained or how many records you hold. When not directly harassed within the team or by heated fans, you may see your contracts cut or not renewed. And since females are much less likely than male athletes to sign multi-year agreements, that can easily translate to being left uncovered by any form of maternity plan.

The message is clear: motherhood and high-level sporting careers are not a match. They are not compatible. Either you retire and then start a family, or you quit. Something has been moving even faster in the last few years. It happened following the extended rights for women and mothers in the labour market. But in sports, it is gaining a boost, specifically thanks to the ever-growing and more vocal movement of top athletes who are mothers calling for better protection for motherhood. At the end of the day, they are competing for more rights for what is their full-time job.

In the past, having children and being an elite athlete was a stigma. Let’s mention the story of Fanny Blankers-Koen. In 1948, the Dutch track athlete became the first woman ever to win four gold medals at the Olympics (winning the 200m by 0.7 seconds – the biggest margin in the games that still stands today.) If that was not enough, at that time, the athlete, already a mother of two, was pregnant with her third child. Named the “Flying Housewife”, no matter the records she shattered she was criticised at the time for travelling to compete – and leaving the children at home.

Regardless of the public reception, her example also shattered stereotypes about age and gender for elite athletes. But it took decades for improvements and clear shifts in the way, and willingness to speak about these topics, to happen.

While hitting a tennis ball

Today, women in sports have become more recognised for their achievements. Some of them keep making headlines for their performances, the records they break and even the (in much fewer cases) richness of the contracts they sign.

But few of them also because they vocally express the need for more equal and better protections for motherhood. The lack of maternity plans for professional and non-professional (even if elite) athletes is particularly felt. It is becoming more of a topic, especially in the US, even if not exclusively. Worldwide, the country remains one of the only six that does not provide a national maternity leave program in any field. Companies or insurance companies can offer some subsidies/time to working mothers. Then, it is not too surprising that the number of voices of athletes has risen recently—the likes of the names mentioned before. The two tennis stars, in particular, have been involved in recent initiatives that tackle the issue.

After announcing her pregnancy and having her daughter last year, Naomi Osaka started to champion the importance of paid leave. Partnering with Bobbie (a company that provides organic and sustainable infant formula) and advocating for the Family and Medical Leave Act, she wrote in April: “The lack of federal paid leave has left parents with little, if any, support. As a new mom, this hit home for me. ”

Not shying away from the challenges of having a baby, she also confirms she is still very much dialled in tennis, preparing to compete at the Olympics this summer, adding: “I just want to be a good role model for her, and I want her to be proud of me.”

Serena Williams is also on the same page. This tennis superstar is not new in advocating for equality. In 2020, when questioned about her activism for equality, she unashamedly answered, “The day I stop fighting for equality and for people that look like you and me, will be the day I’m in my grave.” Her commitment to advocating for motherhood wrote a new chapter just weeks ago when she co-founded birthFOUND with Elaine Welteroth. The journalist and TV host on an Instagram post in April, wrote: “It all started with a little Instagram fundraiser for my birthday that raised enough money to cover the cost of birth care for not one but two families in just 16 hours. We are creating a safety net of resources for families across the country to expand immediate access to quality, life-saving maternal health care.”⁠

Not only on the tennis court

It is not only tennis champions who advocate for maternity rights in sports. Other examples come from the running tracks. Among others, it is the case with Allyson Felix. The US running star, who has 11 Olympic medals (more than Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt), has been spending the last years advocating for maternal health for Black women and making sure that mothers have childcare support when competing—what she considers to be one of “the biggest barriers” to women continuing their careers at top levels.

Even if slowly, but on a different scale, some sports unions are starting reforms. The WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) has been praised for introducing in 2020 a historic collecting bargaining agreement that gives players fully paid maternity leave, two-bedroom apartments and childcare subsidies. And to some top athletes, it also offers benefits for adoption, surrogacy and infertility treatments.

On an international level (but with a significant impact on the US, where female “soccer” is a much bigger sport than the men’s), Fifa grants maternity benefits. Even if the challenges are still many – it received a lot of coverage the dispute between Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir and her team at the time, Lyon, when she announced she was pregnant – professional footballers are now entitled to 14 weeks leave paid at 2/3 of the player’splayer’s salary, and to adequate medical and physical support (including opportunities for breastfeeding or pumping. An improvement that has been credibly boosted by the growing success of women’s football in recent years and peaked with the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

The above represents but a selection of examples of crucial actions that have been taken. Best practices aside, we are still undeniably far from widespread coverage of maternity expenses and motherhood needs for athletes. In various countries and disciplines, top sporters compete without being recognised as “professional”; many have to have full-time jobs while competing at the top level. However, the evidence that more voices and some big organisations are speaking up or even intervening means something is moving.

After years of being “second-class” athletes, maybe in the future, women will be able to manage longer careers and motherhood while achieving top results and media coverage. Maybe even richer contracts with brands. And being granted similar economic compensation and benefits to their male counterparts.

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