top of page
  • Writer's pictureSociety of Bioethics and Medicine

The Pregnancy Penalty and Research Gap of Female Olympic Athletes

Written by Selma Music

Edited by Raheem Sheikh

The false belief that women were psychologically and physically inferior to men is what restricted female athletes from the Olympics until the first half of the 20th century. Today, women constitute nearly half of all Olympics athletes, yet the medical attention they receive and the policies in place still work against them. For years, competitive sport has been dominated by men, but women have integrated into elite competition and proved equal to their male counterparts.. Yet, there is a very big gap between the research present on the male athlete’s body and the female athlete’s body. Dr. Colombo and Dr. Finocchiaro, doctors specialized in cardiothoracic research, provide studies on the electrical, structural, and functional cardiac changes due to physiological adaptation to exercise, between men and women, which show obvious differences in output. Most studies have evaluated male elite athlete’s health while disregarding that of females. For example, women tend to exhibit eccentric hypertrophy, an increase in the heart’s muscle mass and pumping ability due to exertion. While this may be a normal finding in male athletes, it should be evaluated in female athletes as it may be a sign of disease. Adaptation differences between men and women are critical and need to be better defined in medicine, rather than pursuing the same treatments with limited knowledge.

This can be applied to pregnant athletes as well. Historically, women were discouraged from participating in sports due to irrational fears of harming their reproductive systems. Stereotypes and limited medical knowledge make participating in sports hard enough for women, but for those that are pregnant, it is magnified. Most of the claims against exercise during pregnancy are scientifically unfounded. Instead, studies have shown exercise during pregnancy may benefit fetus development in utero and benefit the mother. Increasing participation of women in sports should encourage the scientific community to develop large, longitudinal studies focused on female athletes, rather than allowing misconceptions and stereotypes to affect their participation,performance, and salary. Elite athletes face the “pregnancy penalty,” a multitude of policies and systems that are reinforced by stereotypes and provide zero support to pregnant athletes. Alysia Montaño, a six-time Olympic track champion, was pregnant while training and being sponsored by multiple companies. Montaño realized once she got pregnant that she would have to work much harder to prove her worth against the “damaged goods” stereotype against pregnant athletes.

Unfortunately, Montaño’s sponsors cut her contract by fifty percent due to her 2014 performance, the year she was pregnant. Her male representatives referred to the clause in her contract that required her to maintain certain performance minimums, which did not acknowledge the obvious limitations she could face during pregnancy. Moderate training during pregnancy can be beneficial, but exercise “at above 90% of maximal maternal heart rate in pregnant elite athletes may compromise wellbeing,” yet this is not considered to be a limitation by many Olympic contracts. This one incident amplifies problems of the larger Olympic society: pregnant athletes facing discrimination and the risk of losing their careers due to the neglect and inconsideration of their employers. The United States is the only industrialized country without paid maternity leave, resulting in cases where athletes hide their pregnancies, and even have a requirement that they sign contracts promising not to get pregnant. These athletes face risks such as losing their health insurance and income if they do not perform to benchmarks established by an androcentric standard.

Sexism in the Olympics has proven to interfere with nearly everything, personal and professional, that a female athlete does, from getting pregnant to having a medical appointment. The effects of sexism mirror a patriarchal society and legislation proves to be the underlying cause of patterns occurring in the Olympics. Basic research on the female athlete’s body is long overdue, and the consequences of this have become more evident since women joined the Olympics.

Colombo, Clea Simone S S, and Gherardo Finocchiaro. “The Female Athlete's Heart: Facts and Fallacies.” Current Treatment Options in Cardiovascular Medicine, Springer US, 3 Nov. 2018,

Salvesen, Kjell Å., et al. “Fetal Wellbeing May Be Compromised during Strenuous Exercise among Pregnant Elite Athletes.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 46, no. 4, Mar. 2012, pp. 279–283. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1136/bjsm.2010.080259.

Smith, Laura. “Elite Athletes and the Pregnancy Penalty.” Cal Alumni Association, 11 Sept.2019,

#bioethics #bioethicsandmedicine #medicine #studentvoices #cuny #huntercollege #prehealth #blog #premed #predental #prepa #prenursing #stem #students #bioethicsblog #societyofbioethicsandmedicine #science #healthdisparities #mentalhealth #student #cuny #collegestudents #medicalschool #bioethicalissues

Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page