Olympic organizers: 'Highly unlikely' that breastfeeding moms can bring children to Tokyo Games

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UPDATE: On Wednesday, two days after the following story was published, the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee reversed course and announced that "after careful consideration of the unique situation facing athletes with nursing children, we are pleased to confirm that, when necessary, nursing children will be able to accompany athletes to Japan."

Aliphine Tuliamuk, the U.S. Olympic marathoner who doubles as a new mom, has said that she "cannot imagine" going to the 2021 Games without her breastfeeding daughter, Zoe.

Olympic organizers, however, say she'll probably have to. An International Olympic Committee spokesperson told Yahoo Sports on Monday that it is "highly unlikely" that "unaccredited people from overseas" — which would include infants and caregivers — will be granted entry into Japan for the Games.

A Tokyo 2020 organizing committee spokesperson said, in part: "Following discussions with the IOC, it has basically been decided to give up on allowing athletes’ family members and other companions to accompany them to the Games."

In its statement, the organizing committee left itself some leeway for last-minute amendments to the policy. "There may be special circumstances, particularly with regard to infant children, and we will therefore continue to consult with the IOC and the IPC and solicit opinions from other relevant parties," it said. But multiple Olympians with young children are preparing to be without them in Tokyo.

Alex Morgan gave birth to her daughter Charlie last year. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Alex Morgan gave birth to her daughter Charlie last year. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Organizers have barred foreign spectators and reduced delegation sizes as part of a complex plan to keep COVID-19 out of the Olympics. Athletes' parents and partners won't be allowed at the Games, unless they serve as the athlete's coach or in some other "accredited" role.

Mothers have pushed for exceptions to those rules. Tuliamuk — who qualified for the Games last February, then decided to have a baby once the Games were postponed — asked the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee if her 5-month-old daughter and fiancé can accompany her to Japan. Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher, who gave birth in March, has pleaded with organizers for an exemption. American soccer star Alex Morgan has said she hoped to bring her 1-year-old daughter, Charlie.

“It’s important to allow mothers the option to have their kids with them when they compete," Morgan said in April. "If a child is under 1 or 2, they might still be breastfeeding, so that’s a huge piece of it.”

Sprinter Allyson Felix told reporters that she didn't know whether she'd be able to bring her 2-year-old daughter, Camryn, to Tokyo. But the priority, she said, should be infants.

“I would be most sensitive to moms who are breastfeeding,” she said. “I know for me, when I competed when [Camryn] was under a year old — you need to be near your child.”

The IOC said that "a small number" of national Olympic committees "have been dealing with requests from athletes to bring their children on a case-by-case basis." The USOPC received Tuliamuk's request, and then made a request on her behalf to the Tokyo organizing committee, a USOPC official said. The organizing committee, citing COVID countermeasures, denied that request, the USOPC official said.

The policy has left new mothers struggling, both emotionally and logistically. 

"I feel excited, but also torn," Tuliamuk wrote on social media late Sunday night. "I have been working my butt off since having my daughter, I want to produce the best result possible, my long runs and workouts are coming together nicely, body is holding together well. I had been putting off thinking about Zoe not coming to Tokyo with me for a while now, but I had to start to, at team processing a week ago in Eugene, and I have cried a lot since.

"I know that I will be leaving her for only 10 days, and she will be just fine, and that so many other moms have done the same, but I can’t even imagine being away from her for half a day. My throat is lumpy."

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Gaucher will be gone longer — 28 days, she said. "People have told me to try to pump [breast milk] like mad," she said in an Instagram video last week. "Um, I don't have enough milk in me to train as a high-level athlete, get my butt back in shape, and feed her currently, all while stocking 28 days' supply. We've looked into shipping milk, we've run into some complications. We're still exploring that option. But it's not going to be easy."

Gaucher said she's "tried all the traditional routes. We've tried appeals. Everyone says they're on board, but nobody can do anything.

"Right now," she said, "I'm being forced to decide between being a breastfeeding mom or an Olympic athlete. ... Tokyo has said, 'No friends, no family, no exceptions.'"

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