Industries in Depth

What is the state of gender equality at the Tokyo Olympics?

Tokyo, Japan; A women poses in front of the Olympic Rings outside the Olympic Stadium before the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games

Major barriers still remain for female Olympians, particularly competitors who are mothers. Image: Reuters/USA TODAY USPW

Jane Thornton
Clinician Scientist, Canada Research Chair in Injury Prevention and Physical Activity for Health, Sport Medicine Physician, Western University
Margie Davenport
Associate Professor, Christenson Professor in Active Healthy Living, Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation, University of Alberta
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  • The international Olympic Committee and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Organizing Committee have announced that the Tokyo Games would be the "first gender-balanced Olympic Games in history."
  • Barriers remain though, particularly for mothers returning to their sports after pregnancy.
  • Research has demonstrated the safety and benefits of engaging in physical activity during pregnancy for both mother and child.

In March, the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Organizing Committee announced that the Tokyo Games would be the “first gender-balanced Olympic Games in history.”

The gender gap in sport is well-established. Men have historically dominated elite sport for centuries, but thanks in part to the advocacy of organizations like the IOC Women in Sport Commission, global female representation in sport is greater than ever.

Central to this movement is the increased visibility of elite female athletes competing and succeeding at the Olympic Games, inspiring future female Olympians across the globe. Yet, major barriers still remain, particularly those faced by athletes who are mothers.

Breastfeeding at the Olympics

Mothers have been competing at the Olympics since the Paris 1900 Games when women’s events were first added. But the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games have highlighted the barriers faced by mothers and mothers-to-be as they vie for coveted spots on the Olympic roster.

Veteran Canadian basketball player Kim Boucher recently made a plea via social media to be allowed to bring her three-month-old daughter (whom she was still breastfeeding) to Tokyo. The organizing committee’s initial answer was no, given pandemic restrictions. When international media pressure mounted, the committee’s stance shifted.

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In a statement to the CBC, the committee said: “It is our understanding that no children stayed at Olympic Villages during previous Games. Nevertheless, there may be special circumstances, particularly with regard to infant children.”

With the ultimate reversal of their decision, Boucher and her daughter will be attending the Olympic Games together.

Fighting to qualify

In 2018, Canadian Olympic boxer Mandy Bujold’s dream of starting a family became a reality when her daughter was born.

Knowing she wanted to compete at another Olympic Games, Bujold set her sights on Tokyo 2020. Her plans were nearly put on hold when the International Olympic Committee’s boxing task force announced that the qualification criteria for the Tokyo Games would be based on rankings at three tournaments where Bujold had not competed due to her pregnancy.

Bujold fought back, bringing her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled on June 30 that accommodation must be made for women who were pregnant or postpartum during the qualification period.

Mothers making waves

After a nearly two-decade career highlighted by six Olympic gold medals over the course of four Games and countless world championship victories, American sprinter Allyson Felix could have retired with an unmatched legacy in track and field when she became pregnant in 2019.

But she didn’t. Instead, the decorated Olympian is returning to Tokyo for her fifth Olympic Games — and her first as a mother.

After a break with long-time sponsor Nike, Felix’s vocal advocacy has forced major corporations to reconsider how they support female athletes before and after pregnancy.

Shortly after facing public backlash regarding its treatment of pregnant athletes like Felix, Nike announced a new maternity policy for sponsored athletes back in August 2019. The new policy expanded the amount of time a pregnant athlete’s pay and bonuses cannot be cut, from 12 to 18 months.

Another mother making waves in elite sport is Helen Glover, who became the first mother named to a British Olympic rowing team last month. The remarkable part of Glover’s story is not only that the right personal supports are now in place for her, but that it has taken so long for one of the sport’s best funded and most prolific national teams to achieve this milestone.

The research is clear

While participation in elite sport typically declines in pregnant athletes, female athletes are pushing against the societal narrative that they should “take it easy” during pregnancy and beyond by smashing stereotypes and continuing to compete.

As female participation in elite sport has grown during pregnancy and the postpartum period, so has our understanding of the health impacts of elite sport participation during this time. Extensive research has demonstrated the safety and benefits of engaging in physical activity during pregnancy for both mother and child.

The research is clear: from a reduction in major pregnancy complication from gestational diabetes to pre-eclampsia, to improved mental health and delivery outcomes, the best advice for most pregnant individuals is to exercise regularly.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

We recently conducted research that’s been published examining the impact of elite sport participation during and following pregnancy on health outcomes and return to sport. This data provided reassuring evidence of the safety of elite sport participation during pregnancy: elite athletes had similar pregnancy, labour and delivery outcomes to sub-elite and recreational athletes, and there is some evidence of reduction in common pregnancy ailments such as low back pain.

Now that pregnancy no longer marks the end of an athlete’s career, many elite athletes not only return to sport, but go on to break personal and world records as new moms. As more female athletes train and compete at the elite level during the reproductive years, it is critical sport policies evolve to support the health and well-being of all athletes.

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