Alysia Montaño, the Olympic athlete who became a viral star for running the U.S. Championships in 2014 eight months pregnant, participated in an op-ed New York Times video published over Mother’s Day weekend demanding that female athletes receive maternity protections rather than gender discrimination from their sponsors. The piece, titled “Nike Told Me to Dream Crazy, Until I Wanted a Baby,” overtly references her former sponsor’s highly-celebrated and inspiring ad campaign that featured one of the most famous athletes and new mothers in the world, Serena Williams. “But that’s just advertising,” explained a report that was published alongside the video.
The short video accompanying the Times report renders Nike’s ad campaign into a cynical portrayal of reality. “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” we hear Montaño say in the voiceover. “Like maybe your contract. Your pay. Even if you have to watch them roll out an ad campaign praising women like you and preaching the importance of taking a stand. Pro sports and motherhood? That’s just crazy.”
Montaño and other athletes shared with the Times how their sponsors dealt with them when they were unable to compete during or following a pregnancy: sponsors like Nike and Asics cut their pay until they were able to fulfill their contractual obligations of competing. The bottom line for athletes was that if they were not competing, no matter the reason, they would not be paid. This, Montaño explained, sets up women to be pushed out of their careers when they are in their prime, while the system allows men to participate in a full, athletic career.
Becoming a mother ultimately puts athletes’ work at risk because of the way that they rely upon these sponsorships for income. Unlike athletes who play for a team or are in a league, track and field athletes do not receive pay unless they win races. Sponsorships, then, are their bread and butter. To further complicate matters, championship athletes are dropped from their U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S.A. Track & Field insurance plans if they are unable to compete at the top of their game, setting new mothers up to lose their coverage at a critical period of health care.
This predicament forces athletes to make the tough decision of competing rather than spending time with their newborn. Competing rather than taking care of their bodies. “Some people think women are racing pregnant for themselves,” said Olympic runner Kara Goucher, who also competed while pregnant. “It sometimes is, but it’s also because there’s a baby to feed.” Another runner was forced to either work or not get paid despite having a high-risk pregnancy. Montaño told the Washington Post in 2017 that she was running while pregnant as a demonstration of her body’s beautiful ability to do just what it had been trained to do, baby bump or not. “This isn’t to pressure women to run during pregnancy. That’s not the point at all. We’re just different and that’s the point.”