The baby gap: For many Canadian Olympians, getting pregnant is considered an ‘injury’

‘It’s not an injury, it’s a decision that’s made,’ says Canadian field hockey Olympian Kate Gillis of the way sport organizations handle pregnancy

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Kate Gillis is the most accomplished woman in Canadian field hockey history, and served as Team Canada captain for 10 years. When she wanted to become a mother, though, she was shocked that pregnancy was listed under the “injury card” provision for federal funding, alongside mental health and physical injuries.

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If she became pregnant, tens of thousands of dollars in crucial income could be at risk.

“My goal was to always be a mom and play, and then I was re-reading the carding agreement being like, are you kidding? This is unbelievable that they’re all lumped in together,” says Gillis.

She is one of many Canadian athletes left speechless by the way their sport organizations handle pregnancy.

Of 36 Canadian Olympic sport organizations surveyed, 28 liken pregnancy to injury in their funding clauses — with nine teams that do not address pregnancy at all, forcing athletes into an uncomfortable situation. They either out themselves as wanting to become pregnant to their coaches and organization, hide their plans lest it have consequences, or retire, as they can’t see a pathway to compete and have a child.

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The overall governing body, Sport Canada, itself considers pregnancy an injury — listing it within their injury funding provision. An “injury card” was originally intended for athletes that were not able to meet the annual funding requirements due to injury or illness.

When your employment is your body, it puts you in this very precarious scenario

All Canadian athletes are allowed to have one major injury before the government bursary, roughly $21,000 a year, is cut off — but not all sport organizations have the same rules.

Some sports allow athletes to have more than one injury, some allow three, others don’t specify a number, and very few explicitly state that pregnant athletes can have an injury card for a pregnancy and an actual injury.

Some athletes with children are out of luck if they incur a conventional injury. The very athletes who bring Canada the most sporting glory — female athletes won 75 per cent of medals at the Tokyo Olympics — face a double jeopardy just by being women.

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“There’s a fear for women to have children,” says two-time Olympian Melissa Bishop. “But, I mean, that’s what we do. We make children, we grow children; it’s a natural thing. And we just don’t have protection around that. And it just, it’s mind boggling to me,” says Canada’s most decorated 800-metre runner.

Newly minted Olympic gold medallist Lisa Roman says she finds herself in a difficult position as she weighs trying for a third Olympics with starting a family — a decision complicated further as the pandemic pushed the two Olympics closer together.

“It’s an awkward conversation, most coaches wouldn’t agree that if you take a whole entire year off having a kid, that you’re going to come back and go to the Olympics,” says Roman.

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Roman was a member of the women’s rowing eight that made history this past summer when they became Olympic champions — yet she is unsure of what will happen with her funding if she becomes pregnant.

Pregnancy was not listed under Rowing Canada’s injury card provision, leaving Roman and other athletes uncertain of the rules. Rowing Canada is now working with athletes and experts to change the policy.

Other sporting bodies are not. There are no hard and fast rules. And as Bishop describes, the result is that female athletes are treated like guinea pigs when they decide to test the system.

The nonchalance around the reproductive health of its female athletes is baffling to many observers, because so much is at stake and there is so much to gain when women compete. Funding measures that help women prolong their athletic careers should only result in more victories and medals.

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There’s still a dominant narrative … that women getting pregnant, having babies is an inconvenience to the organization

Gillis has sought to change Field Hockey Canada’s policy. She and the team’s athlete representative drafted a policy specific to pregnancy it could incorporate into future carding agreements.

“I was like, pregnancy needs to be taken out of this. It’s not an injury, it’s a decision that’s made and I really wanted to be clear about the recovery process as well, everything changes.”

Not only did Field Hockey choose to not incorporate the policy changes that Gillis suggested — there is no mention of pregnancy in the current funding policy, putting the organization, and its female players, in a worse place than when Gillis first was introduced to the policy.

Although Gillis received Sport Canada funding through Field Hockey Canada when she became a new mother, her retirement from the team was announced publicly on Dec.7th, 2021. Gillis cited the challenges that came with being a new mother during a pandemic, as the leading factor in this decision.

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Melissa Bishop credits 1500m track star and two-time Olympian Hilary Stellingwerff for pushing Athletics Canada to change their policies. Stellingwerff had lost her financial support after getting injured post pregnancy.

Stellingwerff took it to arbitration, winning a ruling that “the Sport Canada policy of preventing female athletes who have been pregnant from subsequently obtaining a medical card is discriminatory.”

Athletics Canada changed its policies, removing the term “injury card” and replacing it with “health card.” This allowed pregnant athletes to receive a “health card” if they became injured later in their career.

Despite that, Bishop felt uncomfortable telling Athletics Canada or her sponsors about her plans to start a family because she was uncertain of the supports available.

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This fear is common for women in sport, says Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, CEO of Canadian Women and Sport. “Women are trying to make decisions based on what they observe in the policies, in the culture, in the ecosystem. And if sport isn’t clear about how it values and supports women through that phase of life, then women are going to arrive at their own conclusions.”

“Unfortunately, there’s still a dominant narrative, within sport, but well beyond sports, that women getting pregnant, having babies is an inconvenience to the organization, it’s a liability,” said Sandmeyer-Graves.

For Bishop, this fear became a reality when she announced she was pregnant while working on a contract with a new sponsor. “And so I announced, and this sponsor came back and said, ‘No, actually, we can’t support you, your values as an athlete don’t line up with ours anymore because of your new image.’”

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“How does me being a mother change what kind of athlete I am? What kind of person I am. I was so disgusted, I was furious,” says Bishop.

“I am fortunate to have had the success that I’ve had, and to have some medals behind my name, but what if I did not have those medals? I don’t know, it would have worked out the same way to be truthfully honest.”

If we want women to stay in sport, to feel valued … we have to recognize that that pregnancy could be part of their journey

One modern-day solution — freezing eggs for fertilization when athletic careers are over — is embraced and funded by leagues like the Women National Basketball Association, but is deemed too costly for Canadian sporting bodies and is rarely discussed as an option, athletes say.

“It was something I had never thought of until it was too close to Tokyo, but once the postponement happened, I jumped at the chance to get my eggs frozen,” said two-time Olympic rower Jen Martins.

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For most younger female athletes, egg freezing is not on their radar, and it is not brought up by medical staff or support staff as a method of family planning to consider in the future. Even Martins, a practising dentist, wasn’t aware of this option until the end of her rowing career. When an athlete is aware of this option, they face a $10,000 and $20,000 price tag, which is half of their funding.

Prof. Francine Darroch of Carleton University says sport organizations need quick, sweeping systemic changes, before more elite athletes are punished for having children. “We need to have policies and practices that specifically support pregnant women, we need a gender-based approach to this.”

“When your employment is your body, it puts you in this very precarious scenario,” says Darroch.

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Many sport organizations have gender equity policies, stating their commitment to ensure gender equity when planning and implementing programming, and providing equitable allocation of resources and opportunities for participation.

Alpine Canada has a gender equity campaign with the stated goals of “empowering women to strive for their full potential in sport and society” and “empowering girls and women to develop lifelong participation in sport.”

But pregnancy was not considered when drafting funding policies for elite skiers — they left out the concept completely.

When asked specifically about pregnancy being left out of current policy, an Alpine Canada representative stated that “we are in the process of updating our team selection criteria for 2022-23 and appreciate the suggestion on how we might modernize the team selection criteria language to reflect our current practice.”

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Alpine Canada may be able to lean on sport organizations that have successfully supported performance and pregnancy.

Kim Gaucher, captain of the Canadian women’s basketball team in Tokyo, and Meaghan Mikkelson, a two-time Olympic champion from the women’s hockey team, credit their sport organizations for being supportive of players having children. Both had children while competing and felt supported by their teammates, coaches, and those in the organization.

With the Beijing Olympics only months away, many women athletes seeking to win medals for Canada say they cannot say the same about their organizations.

“If we want women to stay in sport, to feel valued, to feel respected, to feel that they belong, we have to recognize that that pregnancy could be part of their journey and work to ensure that there is a strong equity lens placed on supporting them in that journey,” says Sandmeyer-Graves.

Jill Moffatt is a freelance journalist and Olympian

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