- Olympian Allyson Felix won her 12th gold medal at the World Championships on Sunday, breaking Usain Bolt’s record.
- The victory comes just months after Felix spoke out against Nike’s policies towards athletes who have children.
- Nike revised its maternity policies after Felix, and other athletes, exposed the company’s practices.
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Following in the footsteps of stars like Serena Williams, Allyson Felix, the most decorated female track athlete in American history, has yet again shown that women can be mothers and world-class athletes.
Felix, who was at the forefront of a movement to pressure sponsors to offer improved maternity benefits to athletes, broke running sensation’s Usain Bolt’s medal record on Sunday when she secured the gold medal in the 4×400-metre relay at the IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar.
The mother of one now has 12 World Championship gold medals to her name, a record which Bolt previously held since 2013 with 11 medals.
Shattering Bolt’s record was all the more significant since Felix spoke out against Nike’s punishing policies towards mothers in a searing New York Times op-ed in May. Felix gave birth to her daughter in November at 32 weeks by emergency C-section.
Felix exposed apparel brands’ punishing practices towards mothers
Felix exposed how high-profile apparel brands, will praise women athletes who decide to have children in public. But, behind closed doors and non-disclosure agreements, they will deduct pay to new mothers.
“I wanted to be a professional athlete and a mother. In some ways, that dream was crazy,” Felix wrote in her New York Times piece, which specifically called out Nike’s practices. “I decided to start a family in 2018 knowing that pregnancy can be ‘the kiss of death’ in my industry,” Felix added, quoting runner Phoebe Wright, who also criticised Nike for its discriminatory policies towards mothers.
Nike sponsored Felix from 2000 until 2017. When the six-time Olympic gold medalist got pregnant in 2018, she said it was “terrifying” because she was trying to negotiate a renewed contract with the apparel behemoth.
Nike reportedly wanted to pay her 70% less than the company did before. The two eventually parted ways.
Unlike athletes who play team sports, runners don’t receive a steady salary. Their income predominantly comes from sponsorship deals and race prizes. Sponsors are known to cut pay if an athlete’s performance declines after pregnancy.
That means there’s even more pressure for runners to delay their maternity leave and to return to competing soon after giving birth.
When Montano told Nike she was planning on getting pregnant, the company reportedly said it would put her sponsorship deal on hold and also stop paying her. She then signed with Asics, which said it wouldn’t pay during her postpartum recovery period, Montano told the Times.
Women runners often feel compelled to race while pregnant
Montano developed diastasis recti, the separation of the abdominal muscles, after giving birth, but felt compelled to return to the field as soon as she physically could. She taped her abs together to help her get through it, she told the Times.
After Felix, Montano, and other female athletes spoke out, Nike, Burton, and other brands said they would take steps to better support their sponsored athletes who have children.
Nike said in a statement in May that it can “go even further” in supporting pregnant athletes. The company announced that it would waive performance-pay reductions for a year for athletes who have children.
In July, Felix signed a multi-year contract with apparel brand Athleta, becoming its first sponsored athlete. She said the deal finally made her feel vindicated.
“Speaking out was so scary; it feels risky,” Felix told Fast Company. “I couldn’t sit by silently on the sidelines. So to be in the place I’m in now, and feeling fully supported, it’s an amazing feeling.”