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| 6 minutes read

Maternity and top-level sport: a journey full of pitfalls

The birth rate is a key concern for many countries, which are facing such a drop in the number of births that, according to some specialists, the country's economic equilibrium could be threatened in the long term. Whether or not one agrees with this analysis, the fact remains that the birth rate - and therefore maternity - are at the heart of the concerns of these countries, including France. 

However, the situation today is not at all conducive to motherhood.

Over and above current affairs and environmental concerns, it is the very concept of maternity that poses difficulties. All too often, motherhood is seen as a hindrance in the workplace, almost as an illness. This can result in refusal to take on a new job, or even loss of a job on return from maternity leave.

Top-level sport is no exception, as developed hereinafter. In fact, sportswomen may face even greater difficulties, as reflected in the study of the French Ministry of Sport entitled "High-level sport and maternity - it's possible" (1). This situation is far from anecdotal and has an impact on many professional sportswomen, both in terms of their career (stopped or called into question) and their personal life (late motherhood, after their career) (2).

Yet, there is no real reason for maternity to be considered a hindrance to professional sport career. Prejudices, habits and customs must be called into question (3).

1. Professional sportswomen are faced with numerous obstacles when wanting to have a child and pursue their career

In 2021, the French Ministry of Sport published a study entitled "High-level sport and maternity - it's possible" (updated in 2022), based on testimonials from sportsmen and women (700 sportswomen from 55 federations, including 445 on the high-level list) and presenting notably the difficulties met by Sportswomen in relation to maternity as well as a number of tools to help high-level sportswomen cope with maternity (adapting training, applicable social security arrangements, advice on diet, etc.).

As per this study, 62% of the women surveyed said that having a child during their sporting career was not a feasible project. The majority of sportswomen surveyed (69%) see motherhood during their sporting career as a real risk in the context of a high-level performance project.

On the one hand, these difficulties stem from internal, self-inflicted, obstacles resulting from the integration of social prejudices over many years, namely the fear of seeing their performance decline, particularly due to the physical impact - in the more or less long term - of pregnancy, coupled with the brevity of a sporting career - pregnancy can indeed require a certain period of recovery training, which is sometimes seen as incompatible with the demands of a short sporting career. 

However, the difficulties encountered by sportswomen in coping with motherhood are mainly the result of external and structural obstacles:

  • lack of structural and financial support: special maternity leave arrangements are often unsuitable or inadequate, and medical follow-up is sometimes equally unsuitable. In addition, maternity often means losing sponsors. What's more, the childcare facilities available to sportswomen are often unsuited to their specific schedules;
  • prejudices from various stakeholders (coaches, family, sponsors, etc.). Broadly speaking, it is often assumed that women who are pregnant or have (just) given birth are no longer in peak physical condition and no longer have enough time to devote to their activity, so her performances suffer.

2. This issue is not anecdotal and has an impact on many professional sportswomen, both in terms of career and personal life

It is true that some professional sportswomen have succeeded in reconciling both their career and motherhood. An emblematic example (but not the only one) is the French judoka Clarisse Agbégnénou who, 10 months after the birth of her child (June 2022), won the World Judo Championship in Doha[1] (her sixth title). In January 2024, she won a seventh gold medal at the Grand Slam in Paris. She is now preparing for the Paris Olympic Games.

However, the successful examples are generally the very best sportswomen in their field. Astrid Guyart, a former fencer and now General Secretary of the French National Olympic and Sports Committee, points out that, it's easier for the number 1 in each sport to win over sponsors and federations. For the others, it’s more difficult[2].

Indeed, lots of sport women are not that fortunate. In many cases, top-level sportswomen have:

  • lost their sponsors. In February 2023[3] , Clarisse Crémer, twelfth in the Vendée Globe rankings in 2021 and the first woman in this competition, learnt that she would not be able to take part in the next edition in November 2024 following the withdrawal of her sponsor, Banque Populaire. The reason? Her pregnancy would have prevented her from obtaining the number of miles covered required by the rules, since during her pregnancy she did not take part in the first qualifying races for the next edition, and according to her sponsor her chances of being at the start were non-existent;
  • lost the support of their federation. Cécilia Berder[4], French fencer, explains"I don't have many sponsors. And the financial stakes aren't as high as building a boat," “But the French federation no longer pays for my travel” – her club however has supported her.
  • suffered paid cuts. Boxer Estelle Yoka Mossely says: "Historically, we've often had this kind of thing happen with contracts and clauses when you get pregnant: pay cuts, breach of contract"[5].

This list is not exhaustive.

Therefore, some sportswomen wait until the end of their career to have a child, thus postponing their childbearing years, some end their career prematurely (whether voluntarily or not) and some try to conciliate both, with many difficulties, especially financial ones as federations tend to reduce revenues and sponsor sometimes stop their sponsorship as mentioned above.

Fooftballer Jessica Hourara d'Hommeaux, a former player for PSG and the French national team, says she didn't dare have children before she retired for fear of "not getting back to my level, the reaction of the club, the national team, the legal uncertainty". She however emphases on the progresses made since her pregnancy:"Today, Fifa has taken up the issue and introduced measures to regulate maternity leave. But a few years ago, a player who wanted to have a child was pretty much on her own. [6].

3. There is however no justification for maternity to be treated as such

When it comes to the alleged decrease in performance (both due to decrease in physical abilities and time management) of sportswomen who become mothers, nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary: a significant proportion of sportswomen not only perform better after pregnancy, but are also more efficient in their training sessions, as they want to make time for their families.

In the abovementioned study of the French Ministry of Sport, among the women questioned, 79% said they knew sportswomen who had taken a break from their sport for a baby and then returned to or even exceeded their level. 

In France or abroad, athletes, professional or not, have shown that pregnancy and motherhood is not an obstacle to performance, on the contrary. For instance, Sophie Powers, a British sportswoman, completed the 106-mile UTMB while breastfeeding.

Fortunately, some federations and sponsors have realized the stakes and the situation (the following is not an exhaustive list):

  • Clarisse Agbégnénou was supported by the International Judo Federation, which allowed her to breastfeed in the warm-up room at the Tel Aviv Grand Slam, something that had never been done before. There are other examples as her, in France, and abroad (for instance Serena Williams).
  • In 2018, the handball federation welcomed Siraba Dembélé-Pavlovic's pregnancy. Three years later, the federation adopted a collective agreement providing, in particular, for salary continuation for twelve months for long-term injuries and maternity periods (90 days). Subsequently, the women's professional league drew up its own agreement in the summer of 2021, providing for salary continuation for up to 12 months; 
  • At the end of 2020, FIFA imposed the following requirements on its member countries:

- "Compulsory maternity leave of at least 14 weeks, paid at a minimum of two-thirds of the player's contractually agreed salary;

- compulsory reintegration into clubs after maternity leave and the introduction of appropriate medical and physical monitoring; and

- protection against any disadvantage linked to pregnancy, thus securing the players' jobs".[7]

4. What’s next?

There is an urgent need to rethink the way top-level sportswomen are supported by fully integrating the maternity dimension. This means putting in place concrete measures: flexible maternity leave, individualized medical monitoring, suitable childcare solutions, raising awareness among coaches and federations, etc. The aim is to create an environment conducive to reconciling sporting careers and motherhood, enabling athletes to make informed choices and achieve fulfilment in both their personal and professional lives.

In a recent speech, the Minister for Sport announced a number of measures: the inclusion of parenthood in the National Sports Agency's aid criteria, the extension of the registration period for top-level sportswomen from one to two years to "give mothers time", and training for sports coaches in parenthood and women's health issues. The question is: will these really be enforced?



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maternity, sport, women in sport, sport career, women