Olympic and Paralympic moms face big obstacles to compete. They're demanding change

Mandy Bujold (L) of Canada exchanges punches with Nina Radovanovic of Serbia during the Women's Fly on Sunday at the Tokyo Olympics.
Mandy Bujold ( left) of Canada exchanges punches with Nina Radovanovic of Serbia during the women's fly on Sunday at the Tokyo Olympics.
Getty Images

For Mandy Bujold getting to the Tokyo Olympic Games was a fight that had nothing to do with boxing. She was effectively disqualified by the International Olympic Committee for having a baby.

"I have a child. That's a blessing, it's not a hindrance," Bujold said in an interview before her match in Tokyo.

The Canadian boxer timed the birth around the Olympic cycle. But then the coronavirus pandemic delayed the Games, interrupted training and forced the cancellation of the May boxing qualifier in Buenos Aires for the Americas. She was out.

When she asked the IOC to consider her pre-baby ranking — eighth in the world in her weight class — because she was on maternity leave during events the committee used to adjust the ranking system, the IOC said no.

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But the 11-time national flyweight champion didn't give up. She appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and won, becoming the first female boxer from Canada to compete in two consecutive Olympics while setting a precedent for women athletes' rights.

The court ruled the IOC Boxing Task Force had to accommodate women who were pregnant or on maternity leave during the qualifiers.

"My focus coming into this has been very different," she said. "There's a different meaning to what I'm doing as opposed to it just being about me trying to achieve a goal. I think it's more showing my daughter what she can do later in life at that age."

On Sunday, with her daughter cheering her on from home she went into her fight against Serbian boxer Nina Randovanovic with a different purpose, to show her daughter what's possible.

In nine minutes her bid for the gold medal was over. She lost the fight in a unanimous decision, but won the bigger battle for maternal rights.

"The more that we can have this conversation, the more that sport organizations start adding rules to protect the female athletes when they do take that needed time off for maternity leave," she said. "I think it's going to become more of a norm that mothers are competing at the highest level."

When she's old enough Bujold will explain to her daughter, Kate Olympia, why she took on this fight to get to Tokyo.

Scores of athlete mothers are speaking up

Bujold is one of a slew of mothers competing at the Olympics and Paralympics this summer. They're speaking up about the obstacles female athletes face that their male counterparts don't.

Canadian Mandy Bujold celebrates with her Gold medal after finish in the women's 51Kg weight final encounter during the 2011 Pan-American Games in Mexico.
Canadian Mandy Bujold celebrates with her Gold medal after finish in the women's 51 kg weight final encounter during the 2011 Pan-American Games in Mexico.
Raul Arboleda | AFP via Getty Images

The boxer had to stop breastfeeding early to make weight. She had to think about the optimal time to get pregnant and if her body, her tool for work, would feel different after giving birth. Then there were the whispers in the boxing community when she decided to go back to the sport.

"'She's done. She had her child. She should just retire,'" she recalls hearing. "It's like, well, no, I don't think your life is over because you have a child. That doesn't mean everything that you love and you want to do needs to get pushed aside. And I think that was something I felt like I had to almost defend at the very beginning. Like I'm not dead."

New challenges and new obstacles

This year there were added challenges for mothers. Coronavirus restrictions forced parents to make the tough decision to leave young children at home. Athletes who are nursing weren't even sure they could bring their babies to Tokyo until just before the Games. It was too late for some, like superstar U.S. soccer player Alex Morgan. In a farewell post on Instagram to her daughter before the Games, Morgan vowed to make it worth it.

British archer Naomi Folkard stockpiled two weeks of breastmilk before leaving.

Skylar Diggins-Smith of the United States brings the ball up the court during a pre-Olympics exhibition match earlier this month against Australia in Las Vegas, Nev.
Skylar Diggins-Smith of the United States brings the ball up the court during a pre-Olympics exhibition match earlier this month against Australia in Las Vegas.
Ethan Miller | Getty Images

And WNBA star Skylar Diggins-Smith took a deep breath. After her son's birth she was open about her postpartum depression and intense separation anxiety that brought on panic attacks. She took time off from the league to be with him. But the first-time mom and first-time Olympian knew she had to go to Tokyo when she qualified.

"The big thing for me is I've always wanted to have children while I was playing," said Diggins-Smith. "I thought it was important for my son to see me play, to see me work, to see me on the court. And I want his aspirations to be, in whatever he wants to be, to chase his dreams, to go after his dreams. I want him to see me on this stage. So every time I may start to feel a little bit overwhelmed, I just remember my why. He is my why."

So she's playing for him on this global stage. After leaving him at home she posted on Twitter "Praying for anyone else who has separation anxiety, you got this!"

U.S. track star Allyson Felix tweeted back "Feeling the exact same! With you."

"It's just like, wow, you're not alone in these feelings, in these moments, even as unique as being an Olympian and being a mom," she said. "There are other Olympians here who are mothers, who don't have their children, who are away and who deal with those things while simultaneously trying to be a world class athlete and trying to win a gold medal."

Meanwhile she and other women in the league have been pushing for expanded protections in the WNBA.

That's how the players' union negotiated a landmark deal for working women and mothers in the last collective bargaining agreement. It included protections for mothers and family planning like reimbursements for surrogacy, adoption, egg freezing and other fertility treatments.

"Myself and other moms were very vocal about changing that and wanting to bring that change to the league," she said. "I can say luckily I have a great support system from the brands that I'm involved in. But I don't think collectively it's where it needs to be."

Fighting for fairness and for equity

Allyson Felix is at the forefront of this fight for equity. She's won more Olympic medals than any other woman in track and field history. This is her fifth Olympic Games.

But when Felix became a mom in 2018, Nike tried to significantly cut her pay, sending the message that she was somehow less valuable. In The New York Times she announced she was cutting ties with the brand. And after public outcry and a congressional inquiry Nike announced a new maternity policy.

Lora Webster of the U.S.A. plays a shot during the Women's Sitting Volleyball final Gold Medal match against China at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
Lora Webster of the U.S. plays a shot during the women's sitting volleyball gold medal match against China at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
Dan Kitwood | Getty Images

Now she's trying to change the game for other women athletes in the U.S. She and her sponsor, Gap-owned Athleta paired up with The Women's Sports Foundation to dole out $200,000 in grants to pay for child care for moms who are professional athletes.

Among the recipients are Kaleo Kanahele Maclay and Lora Webster, both Paralympians competing in Tokyo next month for Team USA's sitting Volleyball team.

"The peace of mind that this money is giving us by being able to have somebody dedicated to be here that they can't call in sick. They can't a no-show is going to be insanely, relieving," Webster said. "The fact that Allyson took the hardships that she faced during the two years since she has become a mom and she realized that there was a need and she had the sponsorship and she had the voice. It's powerful and I am so grateful."

Webster can now afford to pay for a flight and the time off her mother needs to be with Webster's three kids. It's a far cry from the hodgepodge of often unreliable babysitters Webster depended on for the Paralympics in London and Rio de Janeiro.

She will be competing pregnant with her fourth child this summer. Unlike London, she's not keeping it a secret.

"We've come a long way in nine years," Webster said. "This time around, I feel, although there's a whole lot of other struggles, I feel very free in being able to talk about it. Keeping it a secret is awful."

Sitting volleyball player Kaleo Kanahele Maclay poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot in 2019.
Sitting volleyball player Kaleo Kanahele Maclay poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo Olympics shoot in 2019.
Harry How | Getty Images

In the past she kept her home life somewhat hidden, her teammates didn't have kids, she didn't want to be an inconvenience to upper management, it always felt like not the right time. Now more professional athletes are out there talking about balancing work and motherhood. That includes her teammate Maclay, mom to a 3-year-old.

"I know in the past a lot of the time being a woman and an athlete, you feel forced to choose whether you're going to be a mom or you're going to continue your athletic career," Maclay said. "But I think people like Allyson Felix, Serena Williams, Lora Webster, Kerri Walsh, who have really shown that you can be a mom and an elite athlete at the same time has deeply encouraged me to know that I can do the same."

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