“A baby is not an injury.”
Canadian freestyle wrestler Jessica MacDonald is summarizing her life as a competitive mother. In December 2015, MacDonald and her husband decided it was time for kids. They had been married seven years, and delayed getting pregnant because MacDonald was focused on wrestling. She had accumulated enough competition points to be among the names submitted to Sport Canada for continued “carding,” as federal funding is known. But that did not happen.
In December 2016, two months after giving birth to her daughter by emergency C-section, MacDonald started wrestling and training again. “I don't think I realized at the time how dangerous it probably was, but I was extremely determined that I was going to make that world team again. I wanted to get my funding back.”
Like most Canadian national sports organizations (NSOs), Wrestling Canada at the time allowed athletes one opportunity to pause their training for a medical issue while continuing to receive funding. But under this policy, pregnancy is lumped in with a torn ligament or knee surgery.
“Whenever has a pregnancy been labelled an injury or an illness?” the Windsor, Ont., athlete asks. “It’s not an illness and it's not an injury. It's a pregnancy.”
Women who are lucky enough to never be sidelined for health reasons could use that single injury funding opportunity for one pregnancy during their career. Men never face this situation, so there is a fundamental difference in the way male and female athletes are funded in Canada.
Wrestling Canada Lutte executive director Tamara Medwidsky says the challenge with "injury cards" is when injury, illness or pregnancy occur in consecutive years. This can impact an athlete’s "ability to demonstrate consistent and improved international performance, one of Sport Canada’s main AAP [Athlete Assistance Program] objectives.”
AAP funding, which defrays athlete’s training and competition costs, is distributed by the federal government to National Sport Organizations, and it is up to each of these to determine their policies. “It is also their responsibility to develop the criteria that apply to injured, ill or pregnant athletes.” says Amélie Desmarais, spokesperson for the Department of Canadian Heritage.
Beginning in spring 2019, CBC Sports contacted more than 20 Canadian sports federations for comment on maternity funding for athletes. Six of them described having carding policies based on Sport Canada’s model. The remainder declined comment.
The CEO of Swimming Canada says what matters most is having good protocols for helping women return to competition after having a baby. Ahmed El-AwadiIn says no athletes have become pregnant during his eight-year tenure, but anyone who does would continue to be funded, and their medical team would be involved to determine how long that athlete could train while pregnant.
Carding for national athletes ranges between $1,060 and $1,765 per month. Other factors - such as moving from development to senior carding, or being in the NCAA, or reaching a Top 5 world ranking - can alter the allowance, but that is the general range.
Wrestling Canada updated its policy following MacDonald’s case. Its athletes can now continue to receive funding through two injuries, two pregnancies, or one of each. “Jessica’s situation was unique, given the timing of her previous injury and subsequent pregnancy,” Medwidsky says. “Following discussions with Jessica, WCL recognized that additional considerations needed to be made, including additional provisions and language around pregnancy, which were incorporated into a revised policy.”
MacDonald commends the additional injury card, but still sees a discrepancy in the way male and female athletes are treated. She felt she had a solid case to take to dispute resolution, but the legal fees made it too much of a gamble.
“We decided we're better off to walk away from this than to fight it because it's not even what I want right now. All I want to do is help. I just want to be the best in Canada.” MacDonald continued training at maximum intensity toward the 2020 Olympics. In March, she fell to American Sarah Hildebrandt in a semifinal loss at the Pan-American Olympic Wrestling Qualification Tournament in Ottawa.
Human rights ruling
Distance runner Hilary Stellingwerff competed for Canada in the 1,500 metres at the 2012 London Olympics. Two years later, at 34, she had a son and continued to receive her funding, as one of six “senior injury” cases listed by Athletics Canada. But in June 2015, after resuming training, she got injured and lost her funding.
“I felt that this was a human rights issue that my male counterparts weren't going to be dealing with the same situation,” she said. “Any female would have to choose from injury or pregnancy - and, of course, you don't choose to get injured. I thought this is discriminatory against women because it isn't the same case for males.” Stellingwerf believes there need to be changes at Sport Canada to secure women's rights. She took her case to arbitration.
In the 2016 final ruling, arbitrator Carol Roberts wrote: “The AAP [Sport Canada’s Athlete Assistance Program] policy of preventing female athletes who have been pregnant from subsequently obtaining a medical card is discriminatory.” Although Stellingwerf won her dispute, her carding did not resume immediately because Athletics Canada was not convinced she could compete at the Olympic level following her pregnancy. But Stellingwerff made the Olympic standard, and got her funding reinstated in time for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Eight months after giving birth, Stellingwerf ran a career personal best in a five-kilometre road event.
Following the ruling, Caroline Sharp, communications manager at Athletics Canada, said the organization stopped using the term "injury card," replacing it with "health card," which encompasses more than just physical injuries, and updated provision 8.14.5 of its policy: "Athletes may be nominated for Health Card status due to pregnancy more than once."
The language matters, because it can obscure even the best-intended policies. Aside from pregnancy, any number of health carding cases may not involve injury: mental health, and personal matters among them. By the same token “retirement” is now called “transition” because it’s a better descriptor for young athletes whose competitive careers are ending.
Stellingwerff points out that Canadian women outperformed their male counterparts at the Rio Olympics: women won 72 per cent of Canada’s medals (16 of 22) in Brazil. But Canadian women athletes did not receive 72 per cent of the funding. “I would encourage Sport Canada to relook at their policies. And I also am appreciative that New Balance, my sponsor, did keep me on and support me,” says Stellingwerff. “I just think that there needs to be some more secure policies in general from all bodies. We still have work to do.”
Carding, as Stellingwerff notes, is only part of the financial picture. When a Canadian athlete becomes pregnant, sponsorships and professional salaries can be reduced or terminated. Many athletes declined to discuss their experiences with CBC Sports, for fear of damaging their ongoing relationships with sponsors, teams and sport federations. It is not uncommon for sponsorship contracts to contain non-disclosure clauses.
In August 2019, after several high-profile American athletes criticized Nike for cancelling their sponsorship when they were pregnant, the company announced that in future, their female athletes would be eligible for 18 months of funding during pregnancy and early maternity. Nike did not respond to repeated requests for comment. An Under Armour spokesperson told CBC Sports that the company “has always supported and has not reduced payment for our female athletes during pregnancy. We are proud of our continued support of our female athletes, before, during and after their pregnancies.”
Appeal process exhausting
Heptathlete, pentathlete and hurdler Jessica Zelinka had three sponsors, including Nike, through the 2008 Olympics. Her sponsorships were up for renewal following the Games - which, coincidentally, was exactly when she became pregnant.
Her expectation was that her deals could go away, with sponsors reluctant to pay her during the four years until the Olympics returned her to mass audience attention. So she was surprised when one company said it wanted to support her.
“They actually brought it up; they were very transparent: ‘Even though this is something different, we still want to support you in this journey… to support a mother to her second Olympics.’”
She was also grateful to have the injury card to call on during her pregnancy. "Learning that I could retain my funding ... at the time I thought it was amazing. At that point in my life, any support was very helpful." But when she got injured during training for the 2015 Pan Am Games, she discovered that her 2009 pregnancy counted as her one and only injury card.
In hindsight, Zelinka realizes she could have appealed, as Stellingwerf had done, but “at that point I had zero capacity to deal with any more stress in my life. I did not need another fight at this moment.”
Working with Sponsors
Boxer Mandy Bujold is in a unique position. She receives no federal money. Boxing is one of the centralized sports, meaning that to be eligible for carding, athletes must live and train in the same place - Montreal, in this instance. Bujold does not do so.
The Kitchener-Waterloo athlete remembers the moment she had a sit-down conversation with her sponsor, Under Armour, to tell them she was thinking of having a child. “It was a scary thing to do, right? Because you ask yourself, ‘Are they going to find another athlete?’ But they were reassured that whatever I was going to do would be a positive image for them. So they said, ‘Whatever you decide, we support you 100 per cent.’ I was lucky.”
The new mother still works with Under Armour, and the boxing brand Everlast. Even though Bujold’s sponsorships and some grants continue, the uncertainty weighed on her decision about when to conceive. “That definitely played a huge role in the decision for me, and it’s why I waited and waited and hesitated on the decision to start a family. Even when I was pregnant, I can’t tell you how many athletes reached out to me and were asking questions about it. I could see they wanted to have a family but they felt stuck.”
Bujold is pragmatic about the business. “Nowadays there are so many other ways you can keep the brand visible even if you are not competing. Social media, of course, and other ways you can be out and about. Under Armour even sent me baby clothes for my daughter! That went on social media.” Bujold is also sponsored by a vitamin company. When she told them she was pregnant, the company switched out her regular sport pack and started her on neonatal vitamins. Once she was done nursing, the company returned to its sports pack. It was a gesture she appreciated.
“A lot of brands are open to that now and seeing it in a different light. We know that women can have a baby and come back and compete at the international level. We are kind of opening the eyes and changing that perspective. It is a tough decision to make already, what you have to put your body through, how much you're sacrificing. Just knowing that the brands stand behind you is a good thing. It’s important.”
One generation's progress
When race walker Ann Peel became pregnant in 1990, her carding was immediately reduced by 35 per cent.
Peel describes Sports Canada’s policy at the time as “pregnancy is a deliberate attempt to undermine one's high-performance status.” A second pregnancy back then meant a 70 per cent reduction in funding. Three kids and you’re out.
Peel challenged the policy on the basis of sex discrimination under Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission after trying to appeal to Sport Canada directly. Her picture was on the front page of the Globe and Mail, competing in a race only one month after giving birth, in an attempt to get her funding restored. The federal Minister of Sport at the time, Perrin Beatty, ordered Sport Canada to change its policy on cutting funding to pregnant women. But Peel didn’t see that as a victory:
“I wasn't particularly happy with the policy direction they took, treating maternity like injury on the basis that it is an interruption in an athlete's career,” she told CBC Sports in 2019. “I think it should be a separate card, as this policy pits the pregnant athlete returning to form against injured athletes, male and female.”
Francine Darroch is an elite middle distance runner and a professor of Health Sciences at Carleton University. She is the lead author of Running From Responsibility, a research paper on athlete funding and pregnancy, which concluded: “The structure of contracts and carding needs to fundamentally change in order for women to attain gender equity. It is not enough to simply extend the same opportunities to men and women in the name of equality.”
Darroch is clear about who should be the leaders for change.
“Athletes who have experienced these discriminatory policies are best equipped to outline potential solutions, and both sponsors and sport governing bodies must listen to these voices as we work towards a more inclusive forum for female athletes.“
(Top large image of Hilary Stellingwerff by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)