Joanne O’Riordan: Female Olympians still facing inequality

It’s been 35 years since the LA Olympics barred the ‘weaker sex’ from the marathon

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics kicks off tomorrow, just 364 days after it was initially supposed to have got underway. This Olympics promises to be the Olympics of many firsts: the first transwoman competing, the first time the British team will have a black female swimmer, and the first time Ireland will be almost 50:50 in terms of a gender split (it's currently roughly 46 per cent women).

This reflects how friendly to women this Olympics promises to be, 35 years after the Los Angeles Olympics in 1986 barred the ‘weaker sex’ from the marathon.

But, idealising yourself as an equal Olympics is more challenging to do physically than dream about, and many female athletes feel the struggle is real despite many strides being made.

It's been over two years since Team USA track star Allyson Felix published an op-ed in the New York Times, writing in detail about how Nike were going to pay her 70 per cent less while she was out for maternity leave. In the op-ed, she described family planning as the kiss of death from an athletic career respective, with many of her fellow female athletes also sharing her sentiment.


After that op-ed was written, and with growing pressure from outside and inside sport, Nike announced a new maternity policy for all sponsored athletes in August 2019. The new contract guarantees an athlete’s pay and bonuses for 18 months around pregnancy. Three other athletic apparel companies also added maternity protections for sponsored athletes.

Massive strides were made, and the forward progress allowed many other female athletes, most notably USA soccer star Alex Morgan, to publicise their pregnancy, their career and how having a family isn't the death of one's career. In fact, Morgan's little girl, Charlie, became a prominent celebrity in the USWNT's social media accounts.

New normal

And then Covid hit and completely changed everything, forcing the IOC and many other organisations to ensure the bare minimum of staff or athletes would converge onto Tokyo due to the pandemic.

The result?

Tokyo 2020 initially was going to be the first Olympics where children weren't going to be allowed to travel with their mothers, who were aiming to break records and make history. Allyson Felix is potentially going to win her 10th Olympic medal, beating Carl Lewis as Team USA's most decorated and successful athlete of all time.

It's great to see a diverse and inclusive games, but when are we going to stop adding extra hurdles for athletes

Going for her fourth Olympic medal, Serena Williams decided to withdraw as she's never spent more than 24 hours without her daughter Alexis Olympia, another mini-celebrity in sport. The IOC reversed the decision, saying breastfeeding mothers could bring their child, but that decision was too late for Team GB archer Naomi Falker, who started freezing breast milk behind for her six-month-old.

Even in Ireland, athletes like rower Sanita Puspure won’t have the opportunity to celebrate with those who have also sacrificed in the strive for Olympic success, and it once again highlights just how diverse the female athletes are, unlike the governing bodies who dictate what an athlete can and can’t do.

Felix had to create a pot worth over €150,000 for 10 mothers who are trying to get their child to Tokyo whilst also competing in an Olympics. Whilst an incredible gesture from Felix, the financial inequality shouldn’t be there for Olympian moms, some of whom are the most recognisable female athletes in the world.

A governing body that attempts to strip autonomous decision making from athletes across all sectors continues to bumble its way through problems, with clumsily written PR statements. The entire debate about wearing swim caps from Afro hair was a PR disaster from start to finish.

After initially banning them outright, swimming governing body FINA wrote about how these caps aren't for a naturally formed head, completely fumbling over the fact that swimming is branching out from the usual stereotype after USA swimmer Simone Manuel won gold at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

This isn’t the first time the IOC or other governing bodies have found themselves stumbling through social issues in sport. Even the entire language surrounding Black Lives Matter protests is weird. Athletes are allowed to take a knee at the starting blocks or finish line, but nowhere in the Olympic village or on the podium during the medal ceremony. How does that even make sense?

So, while everyone can breathe a sigh of relief that this Olympics looks so far so good, the continued lack of understanding from the governing bodies to its athletes highlights a disconnect many have been talking about for years.

It’s great to see a diverse and inclusive games, but when are we going to stop adding extra hurdles for athletes and finally understand that this diverse group could show society how issues like childcare, racial inequality and others can be bridged rather than secluded further?