There’s a popular television commercial making the rounds this summer that focuses on the role of strong, supportive mothers standing behind each successful Olympian.
But just three days into the 2016 Olympic Games, it’s clear that moms aren’t only cheering from the sidelines, but climbing onto starting blocks, spiking volleyballs, and clipping into their bikes.
There are at least 10 mothers competing for the US Olympic team alone, with swimmer Dana Vollmer just missing out on making history last night as the first mom to win a gold medal in the sport (she won bronze in the 100-meter butterfly).
Just 50 years ago, women were banned from many high-profile sporting events, ranging from Olympic sports to the Boston Marathon, over claims that competing would affect their delicate bodies. But this is a new generation of female competitors, many of whom grew up in the wake of Title IX and the 1996 Olympic Games, which have been referred to as the “summer of the women” for the success achieved by female athletes.
More broadly, the growing mom count reflects shifting societal attitudes toward women – and mothers – not only on the field, but in the workplace. And as female athletes continue to contend in prominent competitions beyond their late teens and early twenties, as has long been the trend, their push for “workplace” changes, including access to childcare at events to designated spaces for breastfeeding, could help further bring the needs of a broad spectrum of working mothers into the international spotlight.
“The more role models the better,” says Bonnie Jean Morris, who teaches about sports and gender at Georgetown University in Washington. “The more people [who] know that so-and-so had a baby and that didn’t keep her from winning gold, or going on to accomplish something big, the better for all women” inside and out of the sports world.
Medals, a baby, then another medal
Just 17 months after giving birth to her first child, Ms. Vollmer became the second woman in US Olympic swimming history to medal as a mama last night. She broke the world record in the 100-meter butterfly at the 2012 London Olympics, where she won three gold medals. She retired after the World Championships in 2013, where she placed fourth.
But when she was put on bed rest during her eighth month of pregnancy in 2015, she started to dream of getting back in the pool – and competing in Rio.
“I like when people tell me I can’t do something,” Vollmer told ESPN earlier this year of her doubters. "After [my son] Arlen, there's not much you can throw at me that I can't handle."
She follows in the footsteps of Dara Torres, who in 2008 in Beijing at the age of 41 – and with a two-year-old-daughter – took home the silver in three events. Ms. Torres first made a name for herself in the 1980s, when she medaled as a young teen. Her nearly 30 years of Olympic competition reflect a lot of the changes that have occurred over the past several decades allowing women to stay in the game longer.
For starters, the average age of Olympians – male and female – has climbed. Roughly 10.8 percent of competitors in 1984 were over the age of 30, versus 23 percent in 2004, according to data compiled by the Globe and Mail. By 2012, 22.3 percent of Olympic athletes were over the age of 35.
This widening spread means we may witness more pairings like the historic mother-son duo competing for Georgia in shooting at the Rio Games this summer.
And the number of “older” women competing today reflects a change in societal norms, as women wait longer to have children and are pursuing professional careers outside of the home in higher numbers. Their participation also highlights improvements in sports medicine and nutrition that allow athletes to compete at higher levels for longer.
However, the most prominent factor for US women athletes are the effects of Title IX, says Jayma Meyer, who teaches sports law at Indiana University and serves on the board of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
“It used to be that girls in their teens were going to the Olympics and then they’d quit,” Ms. Meyer says. “They excelled at a young age but had no opportunity to continue, either because there were no athletic scholarships for college or no financial opportunities to go on training.”
Title IX bars discrimination based on sex in any federally-funded education program – including athletic opportunities – and was passed in 1972. The access to athletic scholarships and collegiate women’s sport selections that came out of Title IX was later amplified by the passing of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act in 1978. That legislation meant professional athletes could compete in the Games, creating more opportunities for financial sponsorship and athletic careers for Olympians.
By the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, US women athletes brought home more medals than the men. This year, the US has the most female athletes competing for a single nation in Olympic history: 292 are women out of the 555-member US team.
And just like proponents of sports praise the skills girls and boys can transfer from the playing field into the professional world, many hope that strides women are making in top-tier athletics might trickle down into society at large.
Winter Olympian Kikkan Randall, who competes in cross-country skiing, has drawn attention to the need for official accommodations for mother-athletes, like dedicated spaces for breastfeeding. Other athletes have called for special accreditation for childcare providers so that kids can be close to mom before and after a race.
“Women athletes who become mothers need a very strong support system,” says Meyer. “That’s no different from women who go back to work [after having a baby] and are in high pressure jobs.” And much as in corporate America, she says, progress relies on getting more women into leadership roles, so that they can influence issues like pay from the inside.
“Women in general are more in play” in US society today, says Meyer. “They are going to college in much higher numbers than before, going to grad school, and having careers. And that translates into ‘we can play on the same field with the boys,’” she says. “There has been an important cultural shift in what women can do and when they can do it.”