On Saturday, American track athlete Allyson Felix won her 11th Olympic medal by earning gold in the 4×400 meter relay. She is now the most decorated U.S. track athlete, of any gender, in history.
Felix, 35, surpassed track star Carl Lewis, who had previously held the most Olympic medals of any American track athlete. Her gold medal win on Saturday came just after she took bronze in the 400-meter race. All told, Felix holds one bronze, three silver, and seven gold Olympic medals.
The U.S. women’s track and field team overall brought home incredible wins these Olympic games, earning a total of 15 medals with five gold. The U.S. men’s track and field team won 10 medals overall with two gold.
“The women showed up,” Felix said. “I think we’ve been showing up—on the track, off the track, in all of the ways.”
Felix’s historic win is especially meaningful given her comeback to the sport after a life-threatening pregnancy two years ago. Felix was diagnosed with severe pre-eclampsia that put both her and her baby’s life at risk. Felix had to have an emergency c-section only 32 weeks into the pregnancy. Her daughter, Camryn, is now a healthy 2 ½-year-old.
“Nobody thought I was going to be here,” Felix said. “I’m a fighter. The last couple of years, it’s what I’ve done. I just needed a chance.”
After Felix’s pregnancy complications, she became an outspoken advocate for improving Black women’s maternal health care. In 2019, she testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the health disparities between Black pregnant women and white pregnant women, citing higher rates of maternal mortality in Black women.
“In the U.S. Black women are nearly four times more likely to die from childbirth than white women and twice as likely to experience complications. We have to do better by our mothers,” she wrote in an Instagram post.
“We need to provide women of color with more support during their pregnancies,” she said at the Congressional hearing. “Research shows that racial bias in our maternal health care system includes things like providers spending less time with Black mothers, underestimating the pain of their Black patients, ignoring symptoms and dismissing complaints.”
Not only has Felix raised awareness on racial disparities in maternal mortality and pregnancy complications, but she has also paved the way for ensuring that pregnant athletes and athletes who are mothers receive equal pay from sponsors.
Nike, Felix’s former sponsor, wanted to pay her 70 percent less after her pregnancy. Felix dropped Nike after they refused to not punish her monetarily for the toll her pregnancy and childbirth had taken on her athletic performance. After she vocally called Nike out for their treatment of athletes who are mothers, Nike announced an updated maternity policy that ensures an athlete’s pay for 18 months around their pregnancy.
Overall, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics have seen wins for women and gender equality across the board. Thanks to the work of feminist activists, outspoken athletes, and feminists within the International Olympic Committee, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics were gender-balanced for the first time in history, with 49% of the athletes being women.
All 206 participating countries, and the IOC Refugee Olympic Team, had their flags carried by one female and one male athlete during the Opening Ceremony. There was also an equal number of women and men performers who participated in the Closing Ceremony.
Women athletes also showed outstanding athletic performances and broke new ground throughout this year’s Olympic games.
U.S. wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock became the first Black woman to ever win a gold medal in wrestling. Women’s wrestling only became an Olympic sport less than 20 years ago.
In a powerful speech that went viral Tuesday, Mensah-Stock spoke of the importance of representation for young girls, “Showing them that just because you’re a female it doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish the biggest of goals.”
The U.S. women’s basketball team also won its seventh consecutive gold medal.
Outside the U.S., women dominated the playing field as well. 13-year-old skateboarder Sky Brown became the youngest person ever to win an Olympic medal for Great Britain. She took bronze in the women’s park skateboarding final.
Female athletes not only paved the way in athletics, but they showed immense courage by taking a stand for mental health and speaking out against the pressure put on athletes.
Simone Biles, widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, withdrew from the individual all-around gymnastics competition to prioritize her mental health.
“We have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day, we’re human, too,” Biles said. “We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
To cap an all-around win for women this Olympics and look to the future, both the mayors of Tokyo and Paris, who will host the Summer Olympics in 2024, are women.
Sources: NBC News 8/7/21; Washington Post 8/7/21; New York Times 8/6/21; Washington Post 5/16/19; Forbes 7/30/21; New York Times 5/22/19; International Olympics Committee 3/8/21; NBC News 8/3/21; NPR 8/7/21; CNN 8/6/21; CNN 7/28/21; NBC News 7/27/21