LAST week, an advert was released which, on the face of it, was inspiring, empowering and uplifting.

It celebrated pregnancy and motherhood, with the caption: “To every mother, everywhere: you are the toughest athlete.” It showed women of different ethnicities, ages and fitness levels doing a variety of
sports, including boxing, surfing, tennis, running and yoga.

It aimed to celebrate the strength, resilience and capabilities of the female body. And it does just that.

The advert, for Nike, shows that whether you are an Olympic winner or a “normal” woman trying to juggle the demands of life, you are an athlete in your own way.

There is little doubt that on first watching, it’s a spectacular advert. However, it didn’t take long before I started to wonder if this ad was little more than virtue-signalling.

You don’t need a long memory to recall how Nike has been accused of treating some of its female athletes who have become pregnant while still competing. And it isn’t good.

Less than two years ago, American runner Alysia Montano, who is a two-time world championship medallist, wrote a piece in the New York Times detailing the difficulties she and some of her fellow runners had encountered regarding their sponsorship contracts with the company after becoming pregnant.

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Distance runner Kara Goucher was told Nike would stop paying her until she began racing again, and so ran a half-marathon while pregnant, resulting in her becoming seriously ill.

Montano herself, who gained global recognition after racing at eight months pregnant, recalls that when she told Nike she wanted to have a baby during her career, the company responded: “We’ll just pause your contract and stop paying you.”

That same year, multiple Olympic medallist Allyson Felix talked about the difficulty she had in agreeing any kind of protections from the company following the birth of her child.

At the time, Nike admitted that some of their athletes had their sponsorship payments reduced because of pregnancies but after a public outcry, their approach has now changed and the company guarantees an athlete’s pay and bonuses for 18 months around pregnancy, with three other sports companies adding maternity protections for their sponsored athletes around the same time.

That it took until only a few years ago for such progress to be made is shocking, but nevertheless, that these protections have now been introduced is positive and heartening.

Certainly these developments have offered hope that women no longer have to choose between having a baby and elite sport.

In Britain there are numerous examples of female athletes returning to the upper echelons of their sport after having a baby: Laura Kenny, Lizzie Deignan, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Scotland’s Eilidh Doyle have all done this.

Along with the likes of Serena Williams, these women prove that returning to sport after becoming a mother is no longer an impossibility. However, it still remains uncommon.

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Part of this is due to the physical challenges and the emotional toll is takes to lead the life of an elite athlete whilst also being a mother, but also it is because of the difficulty many experience in maintaining financial support when they become pregnant and have a break from competition.

Sport clearly presents many more challenges than most industries when it comes to returning after having a baby. But it is also clear that if the means and the desire is there, it is possible to return to one’s physical peak.

Things are improving and the greater recognition that having a baby does not spell the end of a woman’s sporting career is clearly a step forward.

Adverts like Nike’s also contribute significantly to dispelling the misconception that having a baby cancels out a woman’s potential to be an athlete.

Publicly celebrating elite athletes who are also mothers is, of course, great. 

Certainly, the challenges faced by Montano, Goucher and Felix are no longer nearly as prevalent, although one suspects that is more due to the bad publicity than the will to make things better for mothers within elite sport.

But the fact athletes having babies during their sporting career remains so far from the norm proves that significant barriers remain in place.

There needs to be more financial safety nets and greater protections and only then might we see mothers competing in elite sport become the norm.

 

AND ANOTHER THING . . .

THE fall-out from the ruling that former Team Sky doctor Richard Freeman ordered a gel which included banned testosterone “knowing or believing” it was to help dope an unnamed rider to “improve their athletic performance” continues.

Former Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, who rode for Team Sky, has called for a new inquiry in an attempt to find out, once and for all, why the products were ordered.

The problem Wiggins, as well as his fellow riders have, however, is that we will most likely never find the true answers to the many questions being asked. 

This saga has been going on too long to expect things will be cleared up any time soon.

Wiggins admits this ruling “leaves a cloud”. There are few who would disagree. The problem for Wiggins and his former team-mates is it is impossible to see how that cloud will ever be lifted.