Allyson Felix and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce on motherhood, sexism and postponed Olympic Games

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (left) and Allyson Felix (right) have 15 Olympic and 29 World Championship medals between them

“It is a feeling you can’t explain unless you experience it. You talk about it but it’s wilder and more crazy than that.”

This is how two-time Olympic 100m champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce describes standing on top of the podium.

But these words could equally describe one of the other great achievements of her life: motherhood.

The 34-year-old Jamaican won her fourth world 100m title in 2019 after two years away from the sport to have her son Zyon.

Fraser-Pryce is now aiming for more Olympic glory in Tokyo and she is not the only athlete balancing training with parenting duties.

Alongside six-time Olympic champion Allyson Felix, Fraser-Pryce discussed motherhood, gender disparities in athletics and living with the postponement of the Tokyo Games in an episode of BBC podcast The Conversation.

Here are some of the best bits of the wisdom they shared.

‘I can’t remember a time when I just had to train’ – on motherhood

American Felix, 35, became the most successful athlete in World Championships history in 2019 when she took two relay golds in Doha but it was the 12 months beforehand that were the most life-changing.

In November 2018 Felix gave birth to her daughter Camryn by emergency Caesarean after discovering she had pre-eclampsiaexternal-link, which could have been life-threatening for them both.

Allyson Felix and her daughter Camryn
Felix and Camryn at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, where Felix won two World Championship golds

Camryn came out of intensive care a month later but the following year Felix entered into another battle, taking on sponsor Nike over maternity pay.

In May 2019, she wrote in the New York Times that Nike wanted to pay her 70% less after she became a mother. Three months later, the brand changed their stance.

Felix has also worked to highlight the issue of maternal mortality among black women. Combining athletics, motherhood and activism like this, it is understandable that she feels “there are not enough hours in the day”.

“The most challenging part of being a more mature athlete is that there are real-life responsibilities,” she says.

“I’m a mother. I can’t even remember a time when I just had to train. It baffles me that there was once a time period where I trained, rested and that was it.

“That had to be amazing. Now, it’s training and it’s being a mother and not getting enough rest. I am sure that is something a lot of other people can relate to. This job is no different than that.”

Felix explains that, to her, having a child did not mean her career was over – but Fraser-Pryce had always planned to save having a family for life after athletics.

The Jamaican was preparing to defend her world 100m title at the 2017 championships when she started getting “very sick”.

Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce
Zyon was in the stadium when Fraser-Pryce won world 100m gold in 2019

“Pregnancy was the last thing on my mind,” she says. “A couple of tests later, I found out I was pregnant. I stayed home for two days.

“I was shocked because, truth be told, I was thinking I just had to finish track and field before I could start a family.”

Fraser-Pryce describes her son Zyon as a “blessing” and says the now three-year-old “runs the house”.

“You still have to train and find creative ways to get the work in,” she adds. “Trying to do that with a three-year-old is very difficult.”

‘The gap is closing but not fast enough’ – on sexism

Felix has already moved things on for sportswomen who take time out to have children, but she says female and male athletes are “far from equal”.

Both she and Fraser-Pryce acknowledge that there is extra pressure on sportswomen not only to perform, but to look good while they do it.

Felix also believes that closing the pay gap between female and male athletes is harder because speaking openly about how much someone earns is not the norm.

“We sometimes see the disparity in other ways,” she adds. “I believe it is present but I think there is a lot of work to be done to get to a point where we can change that.

“Whether it’s the attention surrounding different athletes or the exposure, we see that we’re far from equal.”

Fraser-Pryce agrees that “the disparity is wide”, adding “the gap is closing but not fast enough”.

“I have to fix my eyebrows, my lipstick because this is the way you have to be seen,” she says.

“As a woman you want to feel that is not the only way we should get attention. We should get attention because of how we deliver.

“It’s hard as a woman to get up every day and put in that work. To go in front of the mirror like, OK I am still not good enough. I have to do more.

“A male can put on the same shirt for a whole week and stand on the track and he runs and it’s a big deal.”

‘Our goals are not cancelled’ – on the postponed Olympics

The Tokyo Olympic Games were due to take place in 2020 but have been rescheduled to start on 23 July this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this month, International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound said “surges in the virus” meant he was unsure the Games would go ahead.

Felix recognises that so many people around the world have experienced loss due to the pandemic but says she had to “take space to grieve” the postponement of the Olympics last year.

She recalls “pouring so much into it and making so many sacrifices to have the opportunity to go for this Olympic team, then the reality of what training during a pandemic looks like”.

She adds: “I’m based in Los Angeles and there are very few facilities that are even open. We’re training in the street. It’s just been a challenge to figure out how we stay at the highest levels and stay hopeful.

“Our goals are not cancelled but they’re happening in a different way.”

For both athletes it will be their last Olympics and Fraser-Pryce says age was a factor in her response to the Games’ postponement.

She says she is “not getting any younger” but is firm in her conviction that her age will not prevent her from accomplishing her goals as she aims to compete in both the 100m and 200m in Tokyo.

“If I can come back from having my son and be able to stand on the podium, my age is not going to stop me,” she continues.

“I’m probably older than most of the women in the race but so what? I’m just focusing on getting the job done and being happy.”

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