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The impact of COVID-19 on the Tokyo Olympics brought the challenges faced by athletes who are mothers into the international spotlight.

Breastfeeding athletes spoke out about being separated from their babies

Right now, I am being forced to decide between being a breastfeeding mom or an Olympic athlete.

Kim Gaucher

Athletes from around the world drew attention to the lack of provision for breastfeeding mothers in the Tokyo Games’ strict rules against athletes’ families travelling with them. US marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk spoke out about the prospect of being separated from her four-month-old daughter:

If I’m going to perform my best, she’s going to have to be there with me….I am still nursing Zoe and cannot imagine her not being with me.

Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher appealed for support in an Instagram post, revealing that the issue had been raised through official channels but nothing had been done.

Gaucher said that she had been told to pump 28 days’ supply to leave for her daughter before going to the Games. This illustrates how, even when lip service is paid to mothers’ and babies’ needs, women are still expected to fit in with expectations that are at odds with reality. Gauch noted that she could not produce enough milk to pump that much extra, especially while training for the Games.

Of course, many mothers find breast pumps useful, and some women can produce enough supply to be separated from a nursing baby for some time. But the biological reality of breastfeeding is that a mother’s body is attuned to her baby’s daily need for nutrition, not to stockpiling milk so that the existence of her baby doesn’t inconvenience the people around her. But it is easier for many in society – universities, corporations, employers, Olympic organisers – to be nominally “breastfeeding friendly” by allowing mothers a few minutes’ break to pump milk. It’s less convenient to provide more paid maternity leave, arrange for childcare in workplaces, and implement flexible working times.

While the strict rules were established to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Games, Gauch noted that thousands of fans would be allowed to attend. Given the small number of athletes who would require an exemption – and the International Olympics Committee’s touting of its achievements in improving women’s participation – it is difficult to justify the lack of accomodation for mothers.

Although the organizers eventually announced that nursing children could accompany their mothers to Japan, the response was too little and too late (less than a month before the Games began) for several athletes.

Naomi Folkard, an archer representing Great Britain, had already arranged to express and freeze 14 litres of milk to feed her daughter while she competed:

It’s really good that they finally realised that it’s a problem…

For me personally it’s not quite enough and it’s too late. I have already made plans and to change those plans would be quite stressful. I would have to work out when to breastfeed, when to express, and how to keep what I had expressed at the right temperature. It’s too much to take on.

Ona Carbonell, a Spanish synchronized swimmer, also ultimately decided not to bring her son with her, as he and her husband would have to stay away from the Olympic village in a private hotel, and be quarantined there for around 20 days.

After receiving countless expressions of support and encouragement to go to Tokyo with Kai, I wanted to express my disappointment and disillusionment that I will finally have to travel without him.

The eventual “resolution” of the issue by a generic statement that “when necessary, young children will be able to accompany athletes to Japan” actually further illustrates the sidelining and minimization of mothers’ and babies’ specific needs in society. US soccer player Alex Morgan criticised this lacklustere response:

The fact that the organizers left it until less than a month before the Games to make even this minimal accommodation is yet another example of society treating the childless, independent, adult man as standard and expecting everyone else’s needs to be forced into that mould. Breastfeeding is a complex process which affects a woman’s whole body, as well as that of her child.

It’s impossible to imagine male athletes being given just three weeks to make a decision which would affect their body and mind – and thus, their Olympic performance – so significantly. It’s impossible to imagine the IOC suggesting that a male athlete leave the Olympic village bubble to travel to a hotel an unknown distance away, multiple times a day, for significant periods of time, during the most intense period of athletic performance and preparation of his life.

It should be equally ridiculous to expect the needs of mothers and babies to be sidelined to avoid minor inconvenience to others.

Read part 2 on motherhood at the Olympics here.