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Tokyo Olympics disregard for breastfeeding athletes highlights inequality in women’s sports

Pro gravel cyclist, Laura King, rode 4,600 miles during her pregnancy, up until the day before giving birth. (Photo courtesy of Laura King)

To help stop the spread of COVID, the Tokyo Olympics told competing athletes that their families could not accompany them to Japan. And that included breastfeeding babies.

“Right now I’m being forced to decide between being a breastfeeding mom or an Olympic athlete — I can’t have them both,” said Kim Gaucher, a shooting guard for the Canadian national basketball team, in a viral Instagram video where she’s holding her infant daughter.

“The basketball team is going to be gone for 28 days,” Gaucher continued. “People have told me to try to pump. I don’t have enough milk in me to train as a high-level athlete and feed her, all while stocking a 28 day supply. It’s 2021, let’s make working mums normal.”

At the end of June, the Tokyo Olympics listened to Gaucher’s plea and loosened their policy. Breastfeeding babies are allowed to accompany their athlete mothers, but they are not allowed in the Olympic Village where Olympic competitors stay. Babies have to stay at an outside hotel with a caregiver, a stressful inconvenience that’s forced many mothers to leave their babies behind.

“It’s doing the athlete a disservice to not have something in place to support them and help them so that they can focus on one of the most important athletic performances of their life,” said Laura King, a pro gravel cyclist.

When King got pregnant, she was surprised how little information was out there for pregnant athletes.

“My doctor said, ‘We do not recommend cycling as a sport during pregnancy at all,'” King said.

Catherine Cramm, an exercise physiologist and leading expert in the field of maternal fitness, thinks that’s ridiculous. She’s devoted her career to studying evidence-based prenatal and postpartum fitness.

“The fact that an OB would tell someone to never ride your bike during pregnancy is such a blanket statement,” Cramm said. “Yes, you can fall off the bike. But a woman who rides all the time, her risk is very different than a woman who has never ridden a bike. There are so many health care providers that it is not their expertise to know about exercise during pregnancy. They just make that blanket statement, and that is such a disservice to their patient. If they don’t know, find out or refer. There’s some discrimination for women. Part of the thing that we’re always fighting against is an exercise expert who gets pregnant, writes a book, and it really has nothing based in science. It’s a study of one.”

When a doctor tells an athlete with a healthy pregnancy to stop engaging in their sport, or an Olympic committee doesn’t consider the biological needs of female athletes, it furthers the gender inequality that already exists in the sports world.

When King was pregnant, the only material she could find is a book called Exercising Through Your Pregnancy, co-written by Cramm. She said the book became her bible.

“I rode my bike over 4,600 miles over pregnancy and competed in races,” said King, who ignored her doctor’s advice. “I rode two and a half hours the day before I gave birth and then six days after having a baby.”

Cramm says women know their bodies better than anyone and can slow down or stop if they need to.

“What I always tell women is, you are your own little study,” Cramm said. “They know their body. I always say mom is going to feel it before the baby. That’s really true. If she feels overheated, if she’s feeling tired, those are the signs for her to slow it down because you don’t want to have your baby be impacted by this.”

Research shows that only good can come from exercising during a healthy pregnancy, for both the mother and the baby. Cramm says exercising five to six days a week for at least 30 minutes makes a fetus stronger and more resilient, and increases blood flow to the placenta. Moms and babies maintain healthier weights, even postpartum. Exercise benefits all pregnant women, not just hard core athletes like King who got back into racing about a month after giving birth.

“There were times where I’d stop [riding] and I’d be eating and I’d pump and bring the milk home in a little freezer milk bag in my back pocket,” King said. “But then there were other times where my husband came along and brought our daughter in the car and followed me so I was able to stop and breast feed along the way. But one [race] I did on my own and ended up just pumping while I was riding. It worked! I didn’t know if it would.”

Crumm recommends consulting a specialist. In Seattle, Bodies For Birth is owned by a pre- and post-natal exercise specialist and registered nurse.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal.

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