The year was 1896. The Olympics—a festival of virility—had returned. Men from across nations lined up to prove their athletic prowess; women, though, were made to sit this one out. “It was for their own good,” said men with twirly moustaches and inflated egos. Testosterone triumphalism was in vogue, and oestrogen could only lend polite applause. “The common wisdom held that a woman was not physiologically capable of running mile after mile; that she wouldn’t be able to bear children; that her uterus would fall out; that she might grow a moustache; that she was a man, or wanted to be one,” read 1996 The New York Times article recapping those days.
A century and a quarter later, a Jamaican lady will take to the track in her quest to become the fastest woman ever—nearly four years after having become a mother to little Zyon. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, fondly called ‘Mommy Rocket’, covered 100m in 10.63s this June in Kingston. This made her the fastest woman alive; Florence Griffith Joyner (Flo-Jo) is the fastest of all time, clocking in at 10.49s in 1988 (she died in 1998).
“Pregnancy was the last thing on my mind,” Fraser-Pryce recalled in a BBC interview. “A couple of tests later, I found out I was pregnant. I was shocked because I was thinking I had to finish track and field before I could start a family.”
Following a victorious return to the track at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, she told Olympic Channel: “Motherhood does not stop us from achieving our goals. If anything, it adds value to who we are. And knowing that we can create a human being and come back and be able to get the ball rolling and still be a tough mum was just awesome.”
Fraser-Pryce is one of the most decorated runners of all time, having been on the Olympic podium six times. She won the 100m gold at the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, and a bronze in 2016 Rio. She also won silver in the 200m and 4x100m relay in London, and in the 4x100m relay in Rio. She also has nine golds and two silvers from the World Championships.
If she grabs gold in Tokyo, Fraser-Pryce, at 34, would become the oldest athlete to win the individual Olympic 100m dash. A task made a little easier by the absence of American Sha’Carri Richardson—a favourite in the race—who was banned for a month for smoking weed. The women’s 100m this time is more exciting than the men’s. While there will be hype to find out who Usain Bolt’s successor will be, the names in the mix are not household ones. Among the women, though, there is the Jamaican trio of Fraser-Pryce, Elaine Thompson-Herah (the defending champion) and Shericka Jackson, as well as Britain’s Dina-Asher Smith.
That Fraser-Pryce also hit her personal best in 200m in June—21.79s—makes her outing in Tokyo all the more exciting. For, in that race, she will meet Harvard graduate and epidemiology student Gabby Thomas, who recently did in 200m what Fraser-Pryce did it 100m—registering the fastest time in the discipline, just behind Flo-Jo. At the US Olympic trials, Thomas—who recently found a benign tumor on her liver—outdid herself thrice in three days, crossing the finish line in 21.61s in the final. Flo-Jo’s record of 21.34s looks fragile, especially as Thomas started celebrating 5m before the finish, which means she can go faster.
There was another story unfolding in that race. The veteran Allyson Felix finished fifth and failed to qualify for Tokyo in 200m. The former gold-medallist in the half-track dash at London 2012 will, however, compete in 400m and 4x400m relay in Japan. Also, a mother, the 35-year-old Felix is just one medal away from being the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history. She currently has nine, including six golds, and could join Carl Lewis as the most decorated Olympic US track and field athlete of all time.
Felix had, in 2018, undergone an emergency C-section forced by pre-eclampsia and delivered a daughter, Camryn. The more vocal of the track mothers, Felix called out her sponsor Nike for refusing to promise that she would not be penalised for not being at her peak in the months surrounding childbirth. She has since switched sponsors.
Felix has also testified before Congress on the racial disparities in the maternal health care system. “You need to make sure you don’t say too much,” she recently told TIME. “It has to be this pretty, pretty package. That’s always been in the back of my head. And that’s not real.”
Felix and Fraser-Pryce will run into the sunset in Tokyo. They might compete in other events, but their Olympic chapter will end in 2021. And the mommies would want to put their feet on the podium before they put their feet up.
Simone Biles, though, is not done writing her book. In fact, she is red-penciling the history books with every leap and landing. Fearless and peerless, the four-foot-eight gymnastic powerhouse is—and it might sound hyperbolic—competing only with herself. Biles has won every all-around national, world, and Olympic competition she has entered since 2013. She also has four gymnastics skills named after her, and will likely add a fifth in Tokyo.
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