'I'm an Olympian, pregnancy, periods and body shaming are still barriers we face'

Abigail Irozuru opens up on the barriers women still face in sport. (Getty Images)
Despite progress, Abigail Irozuru opens up on how things like pregnancy are still barriers in women's sport. (Getty Images)

Pregnancy discrimination, body-shaming and periods – these are just a few of the barriers women in elite sports still face.

For Olympian and professional track and field athlete, Abigail Irozuru, 34, she knows this all too well, whether from her own experiences or those around her.

While she isn't calling for hand-outs or sympathy points – as "raising our mindset and game whatever the challenges is what helps us stand apart from other athletes" – she is keen for more discussion, research and support to help improve equality for women in high performance sport.

Here, esteemed long jumper Irozuru, finalist at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, discusses the institutional and societal barriers that still exist, the tough decisions women are up against and what improvements she'd like to see.

Talking pregnancy, motherhood and elite sports

Abigail Irozuru. (Supplied)
The choice between pregnancy and career is a conversation Irozuru often has with peers. (Supplied)

While the question of whether women really can have it all comes up in all industries, there are more extreme variables in sport.

"I think the main challenge, as another athlete described it to me, is that our bodies are our 'work tool'. So our physical prowess really matters," says Irozuru.

"For me, it's not necessarily been an issue as I'm not in a relationship, but if I had been, I'd probably have been a mother by now because I love kids."

Regardless, the conversation is one she has with fellow athletes regularly, including the one mentioned, who had been thinking about having kids for a while. "But she said there are so many unknown variables that revolve around pregnancy and giving birth that makes it difficult to plan for a future career in sport post-birth (including financially)," Irozuru relays.

"She would love to have a child, but she's not sure about the policies, which are so inconsistent, childcare (athletes can be hopping from one country to the next), and whether she would be able to get back to where she was before."

While of course there will be many women in sport who don't want children, for some, motherhood is something they feel they have to put on hold.

"We know that our life in terms of motherhood and the next steps can be on hold until you move out of sport,” says Irozuru, which due to advanced technology and recovery tools, has often gone from 27-29 to the early 30s.

For those who do want to continue but don't want to sacrifice the timeline of the biological clock, Irozuru tells us, women try to time pregnancy around Olympic cycles. But of course, you can’t always plan these things, or prevent the physical and emotional toll of miscarriage.

We know that our life in terms of motherhood and the next steps can be on hold until you move out of sport

Institutional barriers

Abigail Irozuru. (Supplied)
While improvements have been made, Irozuru highlights where we still have to go. (Supplied)

"There's institutional barriers that were previously in place, and still are to an extent, in terms of national governing bodies or commercial contracts that fund athletes potentially being cut," says Irozuru.

Allyson Felix, for example, was reportedly offered a 70% pay cut in her new contract with Nike after getting pregnant, despite working to return to form as soon as possible after giving birth.

After sharing her experience in The New York Times in 2019, Nike announced a new maternity policy for all sponsored athletes, guaranteeing their pay and bonuses for 18 months around pregnancy, with other apparel companies adding similar protections.

Acknowledging others would have benefited from this, Irozuru adds, “But while you've got the high profile athletes, you've also got the middle tier who are still world class, but they're probably not going to have as much of a voice or leg to stand on.

"There's still not a uniform practice of maternity support for mothers in sport.

"The fact that women may feel the need to hide their pregnancies from their contracts or brands they work with is a really difficult position to be in because you're supposed to feel like you're celebrating an incredible experience.

"In the UK, if you're in a secure [standard] job, yes there may be some pay reduction, but at least you've got security. A lot of athletes are also married to athletes, so if they're not able to compete and their partner is sleep deprived when the baby comes, this can affect their performance too."

The fact that women may feel the need to hide their pregnancies from their contracts or brands they work with is a really difficult position to be in

For those who struggle with childcare, Irozuru says, "Some athletes are nursing between practice or rounds at a competition, with the baby on the hip.

"People may say 'well it's your choice', and while we can see that, we also need to push against that narrative because we celebrate people who do it all, but we're not creating the infrastructure to allow them to do it all and thrive."

While some may find motherhood makes them stronger, like Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce who came back and ran a personal best, others like Scottish track and field athlete Lynsey Sharp announced her retirement in December, heavily influenced by having a child, despite being supported.

"It's good to see it from both sides. Some people can't make that return or sacrifice in the same way, because sport is a sacrifice."

We celebrate people who do it all, but we're not creating the infrastructure to allow them to do it all and thrive

Periods affecting game day

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 03: Abigail Irozuru of Team Great Britain   competes in the Women's Long Jump Final on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Irozuru of Team GB competes in the Women's Long Jump Final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in August 2021. (Getty Images)

Irozuru and her fellow athletes use period trackers (she often gets injuries before hers, which she tries to monitor) and communicate with coaches and teams about their cycles. But for some with horrendous camps (which causes an athlete Irozuru knows to throw up for days) or have conditions like PCOS, it can be even harder to manage.

"It's a difficult conversation because we're still in high performance sport so we still do need to be able to raise our mindset and game whatever the challenges and that is what helps elite athletes stand apart from other athletes,” says the Olympian.

"However I do think it's a challenge that needs to be addressed so that young athletes and developing athletes aren't put off from sport because of how their period affects them."

Irozuru has tried the pill twice to mitigate the effects, but due to the impact on her mental health had to come off it. She also reminds us your body literally changes when on your period so despite working twice as hard, sometimes biology wins.

"I have had a conversation at the Olympics with a coach before who literally said 'yeah that cost her the gold medal,'” says Irozuru.

Feeling 'too muscular'

Abigail Irozuru. (Supplied)
Body-shaming has held Irozuru back from potential in the past. (Supplied)

Irozuru has sought to address her ingrained insecurities over the past few years, but still has highs and lows.

"I've had abs since I was eight years old and I've had really muscular arms. People have commented on it in a negative way if I’m wearing certain things. It’s not the most comfortable state of being," she explains.

"When I was younger that’s why I didn’t do press ups or bench presses for a long time, which would have contributed to a greater level of success.

"I can sometimes still look in the mirror and think I’m not wearing this because I’m too muscular. I know other women would celebrate those muscles, but it’s hard now as it’s my default.

"I hope and pray if I have a daughter or child that I don’t pass on my insecurities."

Proudest career moments

Irozuru, who thanks her mum for her drive and trying new activities (which also included gymnastics, dance and football as a child), has some stand-out moments on and off the track.

This includes in 2016, when she ruptured her achilles tendon, had her third surgery and essentially retired from sport the first time around, setting up a successful business called Manchester Tutors from the ground up, as well as sporting breakthroughs.

"Like the first time I jumped over six metres to qualify for the world youth championships in 2007 with my then coach John Crotty," she recalls. "Coming back to the sport after retirement and making an Olympic final, despite feeling disappointed with the outcome. And making a commonwealth games final at 32 having had a really tough season jumping a distance that got me through in the third round."

When her career in elite sports ends, she hopes to find something that fills her with as much passion, engagement, commitment, drive and focus – she's arguably made a good start as a podcast host, speaker and NLP Resilience Coach.

Hope for the future of women in sport

Abigail Irozuru. (Supplied)
'Small things can have a big difference when compounded over time,' says Irozuru.

While Irozuru is aware some adjustments need careful thought, what she does want is:

  • Consistency from brands and governing bodies around the support they provide for pregnancy and maternity

  • Funding and research into female bodies specifically and other options that don't mess up your emotions (or cause negative physical effects)

  • Conversation and education for young people, especially for young girls about their bodies, how to manage periods and the right bras to wear so they’re not afraid of sports

"Small things can have a big difference when compounded over time,” she says.

Small things can have a big difference when compounded over time

Irozuru says she’ll be at the Paris 2024 Olympics, but whether she attends in a professional capacity will depend on her training, so can’t confirm that yet. She has also recently contributed a chapter on feminism and sports to new book Notes on Feminism by Lauren Windle.

A Nike spokesperson told Yahoo UK: "Our mission has always been to support athletes as they strive to be their best, and that includes supporting women as they decide how to be both great mothers and great athletes. In 2018 we standardized our policy for elite athletes across all sports to ensure no female athlete is adversely impacted financially for pregnancy. In 2019, the policy was expanded to cover a period of 18 months. We will continue to champion, celebrate and evolve to support female athletes."