ona carbonell

Olympian Mothers Forced to Choose Between Competing and Breastfeeding

The IOC's rampant sexism continues.
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It takes a staggering amount of discipline, dedication, and athletic ability to compete as an Olympian. But to compete as a new mother while breastfeeding? That is an Amazonian level of strength that is frankly awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is making it harder for these extraordinary athletes to be compete and breastfeed their children. And these women are speaking out.

Spanish synchronized swimmer Ona Carbonell asked the IOC if she could bring her 11-month-old son with her to Tokyo so she could continue nursing him. Her request was denied, but then reversed two weeks ago, thanks to pressure from Carbonell and fellow breastfeeding Olympians. A spokesperson for the Tokyo Olympics said, “After careful consideration of the unique situation facing athletes with nursing children, we are pleased to confirm that, when necessary, nursing children will be able to accompany athletes to Japan.”

But the rule change still presents its own challenges. Due to Japan’s strict covid-19 regulations, Carbonell’s partner and son would have to stay in a hotel outside the Olympic Village, which would require her to travel to and from the hotel to nurse. Each trip would potentially expose her to the virus, which she could then unwittingly spread among her teammates and other competitors. For individual competitors this is less of an issue, but for team players it presents an impossible choice. Carbonell ultimately decided that it wasn’t worth it, and her partner and son will remain at home.

In a video posted to Instagram, Carbonell nurses her son while describing the rules as “extremely drastic,” adding “It’s been very hard, mentally and emotionally speaking … for me, nursing is really important. Kai is 11 months old, and I want to keep giving it to him. To be 20 or so days with the milk pump every three to four hours a day is a big, big sacrifice.”


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A post shared by Ona Carbonell (@ona_carbonell)

While the IOC is allowing infants and caregivers to attend, they are denied access to the Olympic Village and are forced to quarantine in their hotel rooms. Athletes don’t know how far these hotels are from the Village, often until they arrive, which adds stress to the entire process. The obvious answer would be to include the infants and caregivers into the Village bubble, but that would require empathy and understanding, qualities that the Olympics rarely extend to female athletes (and rarer so for Black women athletes).

Carbonell isn’t alone. Fellow breastfeeding Olympians include U.S. marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk, Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher, and U.S. soccer player Alex Morgan have all spoken out on the challenges they face as mothers and athletes. Tuliamuk posted an image of herself breastfeeding, writing “I had been putting off thinking about Zoe not coming to Tokyo with me for a while now, but I had to start to, at team processing a week ago in Eugene, and I have cried a lot since. I know that I will be leaving her for only 10 days, and she will be just fine, and that so many other moms have done the same, but I can’t even imagine being away from her for half a day.”

In light of the rule change, Tuliamuk has decided to bring her daughter and her fiancé. She celebrated in an upbeat post, writing “What a relief it feels not to have to imagine my breastfeeding daughter being miles away from me. Many thanks to the IOC President Thomas Bach for reading and responding positively to our letter petition our daughter to join us. Thanks USOPC & USATF plus my entire support system for relentlessly supporting us while we navigated uncharted territory. Thank you to IOC and the host country of Japan for making sure that nursing moms didn’t have to choose between their babies and their careers.”

Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher also celebrated the news via Instagram, after posting her own emotional post about breastfeeding. She wrote, “Right now, I’m being forced to decide between being a breastfeeding mom or an Olympic athlete. I can’t have them both.” In light of the rule change, she has opted to bring her daughter with her to Tokyo.


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A post shared by Kimberley Gaucher (@kgaucher)

Other athletes, like Alex Morgan, made the tough call to leave their kids at home:


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A post shared by Alex Morgan (@alexmorgan13)

It’s an important and long overdue rule change that finally accommodates nursing Olympians. But there is still a long way to go before women athletes receive the same treatment and consideration as their male counterparts.

Carbonell said, “Our only possibility is to wait for the end of this pandemic so that normality returns, and with it the necessary measures so that the reconciliation of motherhood and elite sport is no longer something extraordinary and practically impossible to carry out.”

(via Washington Post, image: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

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Chelsea Steiner
Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.