“Getting pregnant is the kiss of death for a female athlete…There’s no way I’d tell Nike if I were pregnant.”

Phoebe Wright (runner, sponsored by Nike from 2010-2016)

Last week, part 1 of this series looked at how female athletes spoke out about a regressive ban on breastfeeding infants travelling to the Tokyo Olympics, a policy which would have been a huge obstacle to female athletes with young children. Although the lack of attention to the needs of mothers was disappointing, the policy was somewhat adjusted after international criticism.

Of course, only a small proportion of female athletes are currently breastfeeding. From the outside, you might think that this lack of support for a particular sub-group of female athletes is an unfortunate blip in the International Olympics Committee’s general support for gender equality. After all, there was lots of talk about Tokyo 2020 being “the world’s first gender-balanced Games”.

But how motherhood is viewed in women’s sports reveals far deeper problems.

Pregnancy discrimination backed by financial pressure

At Tokyo 2020, Allyson Felix, an American track and field sprinter, won a bronze medal in the individual 400 m final and a gold in the relay 4 x 400 m. This brought her career total to 11 Olympic medals, the most of any US track and field athlete. It would be an amazing finale to any athletic career, but in light of what Felix has gone through in the past few years, it’s even more impressive.

To understand what Felix has been up against, let’s go back to a New York Times editorial from 2019. The headline:

“Nike Told Me to Dream Crazy, Until I Wanted a Baby”.

Unlike professional team sports, track and field athletes don’t receive a salary from a team or league. Most of their income comes from sponsorship deals with athletics companies – with prize money from races unpredictable and only going to the best of the best. The NYT article revealed how companies treated pregnant athletes and was accompanied by a short film where several runners spoke out about their experiences with Nike.

Alysia Montaño, an American track and field athlete, drew attention in 2014 when she competed in the USATF’s USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships while eight months pregnant. When she told Nike that she wanted to have a baby, they paused her contract and stopped paying her. Although she left Nike and went to Asics, they also threatened to stop paying her as she began training again after having her baby.

I taped my abs together, because they were torn apart. I wore a brace as I’d go and lift [weights] as I tried to come back within the timeframe they expected of me.

Alysia Montaño

Kara Goucher, a long-distance runner, described going back to training only a week after giving birth and having to choose between breastfeeding and running 120 miles a week. When she was 3 months pregnant, Nike told her that she would not get paid until she started running again; she scheduled a half-marathon for three months after her sons’ birth. Even when her son became dangerously ill, she felt she had no choice but to keep training.

I felt like I had to leave him in the hospital, just to get out there and run, instead of being with him like a normal mom would…I’ll never forgive myself for that.

Kara Goucher

Following the article’s publication, Allyson Felix also publicly shared her experiences with Nike for the first time. She had decided to start a family while she was negotiating a new contract with Nike, and hid her pregnancy out of fear Nike would drop her if they knew about it. She felt pressured to ‘return to form’ as soon as possible after giving birth in November 2018, even after undergoing an emergency C-section at 32 weeks due to severe pre-eclampsia.

Nike offered 70% less than with her previous contract. Even so, Felix was willing to sign up again if Nike guaranteed she wouldn’t be contractually punished if she didn’t perform at her best in the months surrounding childbirth.

I wanted to set a new standard. If I, one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes, couldn’t secure these protections, who could?

But the company declined.

Felix ultimately signed a new contract with a different company, Athleta, and went on to launch her own shoe brand. She also became a vocal advocate for improving maternal healthcare, drawing attention to the disproportionately high maternal mortality rate among black women when testifying before the US House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee.

The treatment of these athletes demonstrates just how vulnerable even women at the top of their fields are to discrimination due to pregnancy and motherhood. Even robust legislation preventing such discrimination against employees isn’t enough to contractors, the self-employed, or other precarious workers.

The hypocrisy of companies using athletes to create ads ‘female empowerment’ and ‘dreaming big’ while also placing them under severe pressure not to get pregnant is a galling reminder that big corporations love to talk the talk but are not going to walk the walk without intense public pressure and the prospect of a loss in sales.