Gaucher’s breastfeeding-exception quest an equity issue larger than sports

Canada's Kim Gaucher during a game in Bridgeport, Conn. (Jessica Hill/AP)

It is deeply sexist.

There is no other way to get around it. Any policy that requires a working mother to choose between breastfeeding her infant daughter and doing her job is indefensibly flawed and must be changed.

That’s what the International Olympic Committee and the National Olympic Committee of Japan have to do with regards to Kim Gaucher, the Canadian women’s national basketball team star who is working desperately against the clock to earn an exception from a rule that has understandable intentions but is working against the best interests of an Olympian, her child and – more broadly – decades of progress aimed at making sport more equitable for all.

But don’t let sports get in the way of properly appreciating the significance of this story.

This isn’t only about the best-and-brightest getting their moment on the Olympic stage. This isn’t about Canadian basketball or Gaucher getting one more chance to chase a medal after 20 years working to elevate the Canadian women’s program fourth in the world and within reach of the podium.

This is about multibillion dollar entities failing to do the right thing by preventing a woman from fulfilling a fundamental role for their child while also pursing their professional goals.

There are laws against this in Canada and in Japan and in in Switzerland — where the IOC is based — but somehow Gaucher’s situation is falling between the cracks, despite the advocacy of Canada Basketball and the Canadian Olympic Committee.

It’s what prompted the typically low-key veteran of two Olympics to take to social media with a series of Instagram posts about her situation remaining unchanged with less than a month to go before the opening ceremonies July 23rd in Tokyo, and the heartache she’s dealing with in being forced to choose between continuing to breastfeed her daughter and giving up her Olympic dreams or leaving her daughter for a month to finish her career on her own terms.

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“I posted it out of frustration,” Gaucher said from Tampa, where she’s been working to regain her fitness in the women’s team bubble at the Toronto Raptors training facility. “It’s so hard to understand the logic when you see spectators are being allowed and media being allowed and sponsors that are going and you’re just asking, ‘why, as a breastfeeding mother, cannot I have my child there? I’m not asking for my whole family to come out. I’m asking in 2021 to be a high-level athlete and a breastfeeding mom, so I just got frustrated and posted it.”

Japan is expecting nearly 80,000 media, sponsors and Olympic officials to arrive next month, in addition to 11,500 athletes. Gaucher is merely asking that rules designed to minimize the possibility of COVID-19 transmission by preventing athletes from bringing friends or family be altered to recognize her unique but very human situation.

She’s been overwhelmed by the response and the support from the public, but so far has not heard anything from those that are in position to make a decision. Canada Basketball and the COC have made formal appeals for Gaucher to be granted an exemption, but so far nothing.

“This is very much an equity issue,” says Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, chief executive officer of Canadian Women and Sport. “The IOC has really been making an effort to think deeply about gender equality, to engage the national federations to work towards a more equitable playing field, if you will … the challenge is whenever you institute a blanket policy, different people are going to be impacted differently by that and in this case, it’s clearly introducing barriers to women uniquely and nursing mothers, in this particular instance.

“We need to put a gender lens and an equity lens on this policy and is it going to introduce barriers to participation … is it actually going to prevent an athlete from participating? That’s a failure of policy and really a failure of their intentions.”

This should be something that people can agree on and rally behind. This is something Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who prides himself on being a feminist leader, should be throwing his weight behind. This is something that Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who has so publicly championed the need to normalize roles for women within the male-dominated world of professional basketball, could amplify.

And this is something the IOC and Tokyo 2020 need to listen to and act upon. That these are rare circumstances brought on by a pandemic is not an excuse. If anything, the pandemic has proven there is more need for rigorous look at policies that have to the potential to negatively impact women.

If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past 16 months, it’s that when things go badly or get more complicated for everybody, equity is often an early casualty. Women and mothers have had demands on them as caregivers expand, often while either trying to juggle their duties at work or having to forgo them altogether and suffer the economic consequences.

Those issues are deep and well beyond the challenges of an Olympian trying to be a mom and a high-performance athlete at the same time, but should the IOC and Japan’s NOC fail to accommodate Gaucher and her daughter, it will be a missed opportunity to show what gender equity in sports should look like, full stop.

“Any time people get to show up authentically and really bring their whole lived experience into sports, it’s very powerful and it leads to great storytelling,” says Sandmeyer-Graves. “Sport isn’t a sterile box with a bunch of robots in it, it’s human beings with all their messy and complicated lives, and children are part of that and it’s a wonderful thing … there are a lot of lessons to be taken from this and the more people that can reflect on this situation the more we’ll see inclusion grow throughout the sports system.

“This is absolutely something people should get behind.”

Time is running short. The women’s team is scheduled to leave for pre-Olympic training in Japan on July 4th; they open the Olympic tournament against Serbia on July 26th.

For now, Gaucher is trying to remain optimistic that common sense will prevail while also steeling herself for what will be the most agonizing decision of her life.

“It’s so hard,” she says. “I’m 37 and this will for sure be my last Olympics … [and] It just feels like your heart is broke in two at this decision.”

That she’s being forced to choose is sexist and it’s not right. Simple as that.

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