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On track for change

Richards-Ross at the 2016 U.S. Olympic track and field team trials (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Sports

On track for change

An Olympic medalist’s claim that abortion is widespread in track and field underscores the need for pro-life education

Perhaps the most shocking revelation in former Olympic sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross’ book Chasing Grace is not that she ran in the 2008 Summer Games just two weeks after having an abortion.

According to the four-time gold medalist, abortion is common—if unspoken about—among women in her sport: “I literally don’t know another female track and field athlete who hasn’t had an abortion,” she writes, “and that’s sad.”

Richards-Ross’ claim did not garner the same level of media attention that her confession of her own abortion did after the book’s release in June. (Attempts to contact Richards-Ross through the book’s publisher, Zondervan, were unsuccessful.) Moreover, no woman who competes in track and field, or who has in the past, has confirmed or refuted the assertion, and no statistics are available to back it up.

There are multiple possible explanations for this: Getting female athletes who have had abortions to speak about them on the record is likely tremendously difficult due to fears of a public backlash and the loss of sponsors—fears that Richards-Ross once shared. Few would be inclined to name names and face ostracism the way former major league slugger Jose Canseco did after outing fellow steroid users in his 2005 book Juiced. Also, many left-leaning types in the media consider abortion to be a private matter: In their view, if a woman chooses not to let an unplanned pregnancy derail her athletic dreams, that’s her business.

Still, Richards-Ross’ claim underscores the need for a cultural shift in women’s sports: As British sportswriter Alison Kervin wrote for the female-centric website The Pool, “Her declaration is very, very sad, but the most uncomfortable fact of all is that it’s not completely unexpected.”

The reason for this, according to Kervin, is that “most sportswomen regard pregnancy as the end of their careers.” This perception exists even though the past two decades of sports history are replete with women who thrived after having children and even while pregnant: Beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings, for instance, was five weeks pregnant when she won her third Olympic gold medal at the 2012 Games in London. Basketball Hall of Famer Sheryl Swoopes became a sports pioneer when she joined the WNBA’s Houston Comets six weeks after giving birth to her son Jordan in 1997, the league’s inaugural season.

It helps to have a coach who is sensitive to female athletes’ post-pregnancy physical needs and willing to help balance the demands of athletic training with those of motherhood. It would also help to have resources to advise female athletes about how to deal with the financial, physical, and psychological issues associated with pregnancy, Kervin wrote.

For athletes who become pregnant close to major events such as the Olympics, it would help to know that pregnancy can actually be a performance enhancer: During pregnancy, a woman’s heart pumps blood throughout the body at a higher rate and with greater efficiency. This brings a greater supply of oxygen to the muscles, increasing muscle power.

Richards-Ross—who gave birth to a son in August—aborted her first child in part because she feared pregnancy would jeopardize her hopes of Olympic gold in 2008. At the time, she felt abortion was her only option, and the decision haunted her: A physical and emotional wreck, she ultimately settled for bronze in her event, the 400-meter, in Beijing.

Perhaps with greater education and support, athletes in Richards-Ross’ position won’t sacrifice their unborn children on the altar of athletic glory. Female athletes can have the best of both worlds.

Comments

  • Karrie Pope
    Posted: Mon, 01/15/2018 09:12 am

    This isn't just a track and field thing. Sadly, this is the norm among female athletes. I know of women who have had multiple abortions while playing college basketball. I know this because I played a season at a major D1 university, became pregnant, and by the grace of God, chose life for my daughter, who is now 15. If women are told anything remotely what I was told by my coach, "Look at how much money we've spent training/recruiting/educating you...you owe us." "You can't do this, what kind of life will you have?" "How you support or provide for a child?" "You can't marry this young man, these things NEVER work out." I know why they usually abort their babies. My coach never specifically said to have an abortion, but the insinuation was that it shouldn't even be a question in my mind. Yes, it would have been great to have a supportive coach, that would have helped tremendously. However, it was the years my mother spent telling me that babies, even "unplanned" ones, were a blessing. She told me that there is life beyond sports and that motherhood is a high and holy calling. Even as an unbeliever, I could see the value in that. My coach wanted to make it seem that people would not love me if I was not a collegate athlete, but my mother told me that basketball was something that I was good at and did...not who I was. Yes, women can and should (if they want) do both, but it is extremly hard. The reality is, the demands of college basketball, would have really taken a tole on my relationship with my now husband. Somehow, by God's grace I knew that too. When my coach came back and offered me the ablity to stay on the team, I refused mostly becasue of this. You practice more than a regular job, travel around the world playing, and have to try to get a degree on top of that. It was too much. Even if girls are told they could do it, many of them won't because the pressure is so high even without a child. But really, my message is to parents: you have more influence in this area than you might think. You might think your kids are never listening. They are, always listening. My mom was a single mom. I saw the struggle and still was able to choose life. 

  • Joe M
    Posted: Mon, 01/15/2018 10:26 am

    It’s about sex, not abortion. As long as premarital sex is the norm, so will be abortion.