The Tokyo Olympics were supposed to be Mandy Bujold’s swan song, a capstone to the career of one of Canada’s best amateur boxers. Bujold, a 33-year old flyweight, has won 11 Canadian national championships, two Pan American Games titles, and a trip to the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.
Bujold’s bid for an Olympic medal before retiring from boxing now appears in jeopardy, undone by the coronavirus pandemic and ad hoc qualification rules that effectively penalized Bujold for having had a child.
Last month, after the qualifying tournament in Buenos Aires for boxers from the Americas was canceled because of the pandemic, the International Olympic Committee’s Boxing Task Force said boxers from North and South American countries would qualify for Tokyo based on their rankings at three tournaments held in 2018 and 2019.
Bujold, however, did not box for much of 2018 and 2019 because of her pregnancy. So she asked the I.O.C. to recognize her ranking from before she was pregnant, when she was eighth in the world and second in the Americas.
Women athletes in other sports — most notably, Serena Williams in tennis — have fought for and won similar accommodations. Bujold was optimistic, too, because she felt her circumstances met the I.O.C.’s goal of promoting gender equality. That was until the I.O.C. last week denied Bujold’s request because, it said, making an exception for her might prompt other athletes to ask for exemptions, too.
“Being an Olympian already, you have this vision of what the Olympics represents, and that’s always fairness and sportsmanship and equality,” said Bujold, whose daughter is now 2. “I had a little bit of hope that they were actually reviewing our legal issues and were going to address them. So when they did not address them, it was definitely heartbreaking.”
Bujold has filed an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, arguing that her human rights were violated.
“We thought by approaching the I.O.C. on April 23, surely, given their commitment to women and gender equity, they would adjust and do like many sports organizations in compliance with the Olympic charter and provide exceptions for female athletes who may have been pregnant or postpartum,” Sylvie Rodrigue, Bujold’s lawyer, said before the arbitration was filed. “It was for us a no-brainer.”
With the Tokyo Games less than three months away, Rodrigue asked the court for an expedited ruling.
Bujold’s case is the latest clash between sports organizations and women who return to competition after giving birth.
In 2018, the Women’s Tennis Association changed how its rankings were used for tournament seedings after leaders in the sport were criticized during Williams’s return after she gave birth to her daughter, Olympia.
In 2019, current and former Nike-sponsored runners such as Alysia Montaño, Kara Goucher, Phoebe Wright and Allyson Felix criticized the company because it reduced the performance pay of women who chose to have a child. The company scrapped the financial penalties in response.
“There is an important opportunity for the sports industry collectively to evolve to better support female athletes,” a Nike spokeswoman said at the time.
Bujold’s case runs headlong into a highly unusual Olympic cycle. Athletes have missed qualifying events because they tested positive for the coronavirus
Her situation raises questions about how the I.O.C. treats women, but also highlights how sporting leaders for many decades have operated under the assumption that women would leave competitive sports after giving birth.
“They thought that women would retire after pregnancy partly because of the economics, but also because they didn’t have the understanding that women could improve into their 30s,” said Victoria Jackson, a sports historian at Arizona State University. “It seems like they’ve messed up, but are not going to walk it back.”
If Bujold does not prevail in arbitration, it will bring her sterling career to an untimely end. In 2004, she took up boxing while still in high school. She trained in college while also becoming a certified coach and judge.
Bujold appeared set to fight in the London Games, the first Olympics to include women’s boxing. After she had won a berth at the Pan American Games, the boxing authorities changed the standards and said boxers had to win spots at the world championships in China. There, Bujold lost her first bout to a top-ranked boxer from North Korea. Then Canada’s only wild-card spot was awarded to another boxer.
Still, after racking up numerous Canadian and international titles, Bujold qualified to fight at the Rio Games, where she was a favorite to win a medal. Before her quarterfinal match, though, Bujold fell ill and spent the night in a hospital. The next day, she unhooked an intravenous feed and went to arena to fight her bout. Having lost five pounds of fluids, she lost to one of the best boxers in the world, Ren Cancan of China.
The following year, Bujold returned to the ring and won six of her seven bouts, losing only to Virginia Fuchs, one of the top flyweights in the world. Toward the end of 2017, Bujold and her husband, Reid McIver, a fireman, decided to have children. She gave birth to a daughter, Kate Olympia, in November 2018.
In 2019, Bujold resumed training, first by shedding the weight she had gained and rebuilding core muscles that had lost their tone. Unlike in some sports, Bujold could train but not compete while pregnant. “You can hit the bag and keep up as much as you can,” she said. “But there’s nothing that can really prepare you for the conditioning of seeing punches come at you and having the reflexes you need in order to perform at a high level.”
In December 2019, she stepped back in the ring in Montreal and won a spot on the Canadian team that would head to the Olympic qualifying tournament planned for Buenos Aires in March 2020. A week before Bujold was going to fly to Argentina, the tournament was canceled as the pandemic gathered steam and prompted widespread cancellations.
Bujold was unable to fight for the rest of 2020, but she prepared for two chances to earn a ticket to Tokyo: the World qualifiers to be held in France in June and the Americas qualifier in Argentina in May. After the world qualifiers were called off in February, Bujold still held out hope she would secure a spot at the Americas qualifier because she had beaten the top-ranked opponents before.
Then in April she was asked to join a call led by Canadian Olympic officials, who said a decision on the event in Argentina was likely. “There was definitely some concern,” Bujold recalled. “I just assumed that there would be a way for them to reschedule it, relocate it or find another way for the athletes to be able to compete.”
A few days later, she learned the tournament would not be rescheduled and that the rankings from three tournaments in an 11-month period nearly two years ago would be used to determine who could fight in Tokyo. (The European qualifiers are still expected to be held next month, much to Bujold’s consternation.)
Now, Bujold says she has no choice but to fight the heavyweight known as the I.O.C., not just so she can complete her boxing career on an Olympic stage, but so other women do not have to go through the same battle in the future.
“It’s obviously more than just my Olympic berth. It’s really about bringing this issue to the forefront,” Bujold said. “I’m not the first athlete that’s going to come back after having a child, and I’m not going to be the last.”