Opinion | The Problem With Idealizing Olympian ‘Supermoms’

We are happily drowning in American Olympian-mother success stories this year: After having a baby girl in January, Aliphine Tuliamuk will represent the United States in the Olympic marathon, alongside Sally Kipyego, who has two young daughters. When the sprinters Quanera Hayes and Allyson Felix qualified for the Olympics, they brought their toddlers onto the track to celebrate, and the moment was played and replayed on screens of all sizes.

We get it: Motherhood is something to celebrate in elite sports. But sometimes all that gauzy good will obscures reality.

The empowerment language surrounding motherhood can gloss over the obstacles female athletes still face as they try to do their jobs. Even as we praise mother-athletes as “unstoppable” and “superstar mothers,” our current system puts the livelihoods of athletes at risk when they have children.

In a 2019 series of Times Opinion reports, the Olympic runners Alysia Montaño, Kara Goucher and Felix called out a sports industry that celebrated women’s decisions to have children in its marketing but cut their pay when they missed races because of pregnancy and childbirth. (I produced the series.) Nike has since changed its contracts to include protections for pregnant women.

That’s great. But the real problem was never corporate sponsors or Olympic committees or sports governing bodies. It is a nation that lets those entities make the rules, all while bemoaning plunging birthrates and leaving mothers vulnerable to the whims of their employers, doing little to ensure them medical, financial or social care.

The United States is the only rich country that doesn’t require paid leave for parents. The Biden administration’s checks to parents is a step in the right direction — but still too many parents are left without viable ways to support themselves and their families.

How society treats mother-athletes matters because sports reflect our culture; that’s what makes athletes such powerful agents for change, be they a Black man taking a knee on a football field or female college basketball players questioning why their weight rooms are anemic compared with the men’s.

Montaño fought her sponsor to keep getting her paycheck while she missed races because of pregnancy and recovery; and the United States still fails to guarantee women paid maternity leave. The tennis star Serena Williams almost died after childbirth; in America Black women are still about three times as likely as white women to die from a pregnancy-related cause. Goucher started running again a week after having her baby to prepare for the Boston Marathon, and in our culture women still can’t consistently take the leave they need postpartum.

No one pretends that combining motherhood with high-level athletic competition isn’t fundamentally hard, nor that the athletes who manage to do so are anything but inspiring. Still, mothers need support, not just cheers.

With powerful images of female athletes achieving great feats, Nike urged women to “dream crazy,” but we should dream even crazier: getting this country to ensure health benefits, maternity leave and equitable, quality health care for all.

After Felix courageously called out Nike, then joined Athleta, she worked with her new sponsor to create grants for mothers who are athletes with child care needs. It was a powerful act of advocacy and also something that she shouldn’t have been responsible for, especially not in addition to her actual job, which was making it to the finals of her fifth Olympics (mission accomplished).

Shoe sponsors such as Nike are crucial sources of income for professional runners, and Felix did not sign with another one. Instead, she recently started her own, a company called Saysh. In an ad for the brand, she appears with her Olympic medals around her neck and shows the scar from her C-section. The image is a vivid reminder that for all the feel-good cheerleading of mother-athletes, giving birth is an experience that changes your body, and your life, forever.

So, yes, cheer for Felix and all the other brave, determined and talented mothers out there defying the constraints imposed on them. But remember that they are succeeding despite the fact that we failed them. Innovation is often driven by the need to overcome barriers — and our society created those barriers. That hasn’t changed.

Lindsay Crouse (@lindsaycrouse) is a writer and producer in Opinion. She produced the Emmy-nominated Opinion Video series “Equal Play,” which brought widespread reform to women’s sports.

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