Olympics

A Spanish swimmer wanted her nursing baby in Tokyo. The Olympic rules were so ‘drastic,’ she chose to leave him home.


After Spanish synchronized swimmer Ona Carbonell gave birth nearly a year ago, she realized there was still time to train for the Tokyo Olympics. Carbonell had one main question for event organizers: Could she bring her son, Kai, whom she planned to continue nursing?

The answer was no, Carbonell told The Washington Post.

Then about two weeks ago, the International Olympic Committee reversed course, telling the athlete she could travel with her 11-month-old son and partner as long as they all complied with the Japanese government’s strict covid-19 regulations.

Carbonell said that meant her partner and baby would have to remain in a hotel room outside the Olympic Village for the duration of the Games. If she wanted to continue nursing, she would have to travel to the hotel – a choice that would compromise her team’s health amid the pandemic, the Olympic athlete told The Post.

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Ultimately, after grappling with the implications, the swimmer announced that she planned to travel to Tokyo on her own. In a video posted to Instagram this week, Carbonell showed herself nursing Kai. She referred to the conditions imposed by the Japanese government as “extremely drastic.”

“It’s been very hard, mentally and emotionally speaking,” Carbonell, 31, told The Post. “For me, nursing is really important. Kai is 11 months old, and I want to keep giving it to him. To be 20 or so days with the milk pump every three to four hours a day is a big, big sacrifice.”

Carbonell said she would have preferred that her family be allowed to stay in the Olympic Village without leaving the bubble.

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“I understand Japan’s . . . [covid-19 measures] because we are in the middle of a pandemic, but the easiest thing would have been for them to be in the village because we are in a bubble,” Carbonell told The Post. “For me, that would have been the best solution.”

Asked to comment on Carbonell’s case, a spokesperson with the Tokyo Olympic Games told The Post in an email that event organizers were “not in a position to comment on performance decisions taken by individual teams or athletes.”

“It is inspiring that so many athletes with young children are able to continue competing at the highest levels and we are committed to doing everything possible to enable them to perform,” the spokesperson wrote. “Given that the Tokyo 2020 Games will take place during a pandemic we must unfortunately decline to permit most family members or companions to accompany athletes to the Games.”

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Athletes with nursing children, the spokesperson said, are allowed to bring their children and caregivers into the country “when necessary.” But the residential Olympic and Paralympic villages are reserved for athletes and team officials.

“This means children and their caregivers must stay in private accommodation approved by Tokyo 2020,” event organizers told The Post. The village has a designated area where athletes can spend time with their children and/or breastfeed them.

The International Olympic Committee and Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare did not respond to emails from The Post. A spokesperson with the Royal Spanish Swimming Federation said the organization respects Carbonell’s decision and supports the athlete.

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Carbonell joined Spain’s national synchronized swimming team when she was 14. In 2012, she won a silver medal in the duet competition and a bronze medal in the team competition during the London Olympic Games. She placed fifth in the duet competition in Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 games. Altogether, the artistic swimmer has won 42 gold medals, 26 silver medals and 24 bronze medals at the Olympics and other competitions throughout her career.

Two weeks ago, Carbonell and her coach submitted a letter to the International Olympic Committee asking it to reconsider its decision on nursing children after other women athletes posted on social media that they felt as if they had to choose between breastfeeding and competing in the Games.

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The International Olympic Committee agreed to allow Carbonell’s baby and partner to accompany her to Tokyo, as long as they followed Japan’s covid-19 regulations. The reversal came after the Tokyo organizing committee last month agreed to allow athletes to bring along infants who are nursing.

But ultimately, after much deliberation, Carbonell concluded that the conditions imposed by Japan’s government did not work for her family.

“I’ve had to make a really tough decision,” Carbonell said in the Instagram clip. “The conditions that the Japanese government is imposing are incompatible with my athletic performance at the Olympic Games or with [my] family.”

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She added: “I’ll have a bad time. I’ll spend 20 or so days with the breast pump, and I hope that when I come back, I can continue breastfeeding, that I still have milk and that Kai is still attaching to the breast. This is something that really matters to me.”

So on Wednesday, two days shy of the Tokyo Olympics kickoff, Carbonell posed for an airport selfie alongside the rest of her teammates – without Kai or her partner.

“The day is here,” the caption read. “The moment is here. We’re off to Japan.”

Boarding the plane without her son wasn’t an easy decision, Carbonell told The Post, but she had committed to being a part of the team nearly a year ago; she could not let her teammates down now.

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“I compete in a team sport and any choice or anything I do affects the team,” Carbonell said. “It’s not just me.”

Now that she’s in Tokyo, her head is in the competition. Kai, who will have a birthday during the Games, has a bank of milk she began building up months ago. Carbonell hopes it will last until she’s back home.

Carbonell hopes her Instagram video will lead to much-needed change for athlete mothers and show that women don’t need to choose between motherhood and their careers.

“My challenge is to help other women athletes and future mothers to have it a little bit easier,” Carbonell told The Post. “I would love to have planted a little grain of sand for this situation to get better.”

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