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How the Tokyo Olympics are ushering in a new era for women athletes

This year, women are competing in record numbers. And from pregnant track stars to 40-year-old basketball players, they are also shattering stereotypes of what it means to be an athlete.
Sue Bird, Allyson Felix.
Sue Bird, Allyson Felix.AFP - Getty Images

When French historian Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympics Committee in 1894, he said women playing sports was “against the laws of nature” and “the most unaesthetic sight human eyes could contemplate.”

If Coubertin could see the athletic lineup of the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics, he would likely roll in his grave. This year, women are not only competing in record numbers, but, from pregnant track stars to 40 year-old basketball players, they are shattering stereotypes of what it means to be an athlete.

“We have come a very long way since the founding of the modern Olympics,” Dr. Fiona Skillen, women’s sports historian and history lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University, told Know Your Value. “Ultimately, it has taken a long, long time to get to this point, and there are still a lot of battles to be fought and won.”

Pregnant athletes and new moms are more visible than ever.

Moms have competed in the Olympics for centuries. The games in Paris in 1900 were the first to include women, and American golfer Mary Abbott competed against her daughter Margaret, who won the gold.

Pregnant athletes have also competed and thrived in the past, including Italian speed skater Martina Valcepina, who won the bronze in Sochi 2014 while pregnant with twins. And U.S. volleyball star Kerri Walsh won a gold medal while five weeks pregnant with her third child in London 2012.

However, in 2021, pregnant and postpartum athletes are advocating for themselves more openly than ever. In June, Lindsay Flach famously competed in the heptathlon Olympic trials with an 18-month baby bump.

Lindsay Flach walks from the track after dropping out of the Women's Heptathlon 800 Meters during day ten of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team Trials on June 27, 2021, in Eugene, Ore.Cliff Hawkins / Getty Images file

“We used to think that it was dangerous for women to exercise during pregnancy,” said journalist Phil Hersh, who has covered 19 Olympics for the Chicago Tribune. “Now it’s considered good for your wellbeing.”

A handful of Olympians forced significant policy changes surrounding participation this year. U.S. sprinter Allyson Felix gave birth in 2019 and is competing this year. Recently, Felix publicly advocated for longer maternity pay for athletes, causing her sponsor Nike to increase its leave policy from 12 to 18 months.

Canadian boxer Mandy Bujold became pregnant in 2018 and was unable to compete in qualifiers for 2020. Ad hoc qualification rules effectively penalized Bujold for having had a child. She fought in court and gained accommodation for women who are pregnant or postpartum during qualification periods.

Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher pleaded with the International Olympic Committee to allow her to bring her breastfeeding son to Tokyo. Eventually, the committee relented to international pressure after previously banning family members from joining athletes.

According to Hersh, the surge in advocacy is due to cultural changes in progressive countries, as well as social media, where athletes are freer to advocate for themselves.

Women athletes are shattering age norms

Athletes 40 and over are out and proud this year. At 40, four-time Olympic gold medalist Sue Bird is the oldest woman in the WNBA and competing in Tokyo.

Australian equestrian Mary Hanna, 66, became the second oldest female Olympian in history this year behind 72-year-old equestrian Lorna Johnstone, who competed in 1972. U.S. soccer player Carli Lloyd is 39 on a team where the average age is 30.8.

United States' Carli Lloyd, left, and Sweden's Amanda Ilestedt, right, go for a header during a women's soccer match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, July 21, 2021, in Tokyo.Ricardo Mazalan / AP

There is no maximum age cap to compete in the Olympics. Hersh argued that many ideas around athletic longevity have been based in ignorance, in part because women haven’t had as many chances to compete.

“This question about longevity, women have never gotten this far before, so we had no parameters to work with,” Hersh said. “But longevity in every pursuit in sports is increasing dramatically. Because of better training methods, better nutritional models, you can go on longer than before. We’re going to have to reset parameters for this frequently as time goes on for men and women.”

First openly transgender Olympians will make an appearance

New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard a transgender woman competing on Monday in weightlifting, while U.S. cyclist Chelsea Wolfe is on reserve on the BMX Freestyle team. Canadian soccer player Quinn, who came out as transgender last year, played in the opening match against Japan on Wednesday.

New Zealand's Laurel Hubbard competing during the women's +90kg weightlifting final at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, on April 9, 2018.Adrian Dennis / AFP - Getty Images file

Trans players have been allowed into the Olympic Games since 2004, but 2021 marks the first year where athletes are open about it. Other athletes are not open about their transition, according to the Associated Press.

Impressive progress

Gender parity among Olympic athletes has increased dramatically in recent years. Tokyo is set to feature 49 percent women athletes, which is up from 44 percent in Rio in 2016 and 38.2 percent in Sydney in 2000, according to the International Olympic Committee. (In 1900, 22 women comprised 2.2 percent of the overall athletes, and women only competed in five sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrianism and golf. Men competed in 19.)

The IOC also released a new set of guidelines, which strongly encouraged the media to cover the Olympics with gender equality in mind.

Coaching is still very heavily male-dominated; only 11 percent of coaches were female in Rio in 2016. And while representation of women on the IOC Executive Board has increased in the past few years, it currently sits at 33 percent. Still, the progress that has been made so far is encouraging, as are the legions of women now shattering gender stereotypes and expectations in Tokyo.