Skip to main content

Pregnant women have been barred from competing in sanctioned netball games in Australia.

Netball, a basketball-like sport, is played by more than one million Australians, most of them women, according to Netball Australia's site on the World Wide Web. Players cannot run with the ball, and no contact is allowed. Points are scored by throwing the ball through a three-metre-high hoop.

While doing research for her master's degree in international sport law, the president of Netball Australia, Sue Taylor, found there is a lack of medical evidence that it is safe for pregnant women to play certain sports. Until the issue is discussed in an "open forum," she said, pregnant athletes will not be allowed to play netball.

The barring has the best interests of the pregnant player, the unborn baby and the association in mind, said Pam Smith, the executive director of Netball Australia.

But it's a move that some Canadian experts feel is too extreme, as expectant mothers have competed in sports, including golf and hockey.

"This is not something that should be unilaterally the sport's choice," said Hilary Findlay, the chairwoman of the sports management department at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

She said a number of factors should be considered when deciding whether a pregnant athlete should be allowed to compete in any sport: can the athlete safely compete; can the athlete perform up to par; and does having the athlete compete pose a liability to organizers.

"You have to put all of these into the mix," Findlay said. "It's a joint decision."

She said that while no sports body in Canada bars pregnant athletes from competing, Canadian organizations have had to deal with the pregnancy question.

Until the early 1990s, amateur athletes in Canada had their funding cut by the federal government if they got pregnant. The policy was repealed in 1991 because it was considered discriminatory.

One month before the Sydney Olympic Games last year, Findlay said, an athlete discovered she was pregnant. It was not until she spoke to her doctor, her coach and the Canadian Olympic Association that she decided not to compete in the Games.

Findlay said there is a need for organizations to develop a policy on pregnancy, much like policies for athletes with injuries.

"Pregnancy isn't an injury, but it does affect the body," she said. "If you look at sports injury policy, they are quite flexible. We have a comprehensive approach to injury. We should have a comprehensive approach to pregnancy."

The COA does not have a formal policy about pregnant athletes, nor does Tennis Canada or the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union. Each organization says it would deal with situations case by case, and that it is up to the athlete and her doctor to decide whether to compete.

"The COA does not make the decision on behalf of an athlete," said Caroline Assalian, the captain of the COA's high-performance team. "The COA would not be in a good position to unilaterally say they can't compete."

Pregnant athletes have proved they can compete at high levels in the past. Most recently, Brenda Corrie Kuehn competed in the first two rounds of the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament while eight months pregnant.

After the U.S. women's hockey team won the Olympic gold medal in 1998, the New York Post reported that one of the players, Lisa Brown-Miller, discovered she was eight weeks pregnant.

Marathoner Heather Bessette won a five-kilometre race in Westerly, R.I., while four months pregnant and did a 45-minute workout on a training apparatus the day before her daughter was born.

The list goes on and on.

"A pregnancy shouldn't be looked at as a barrier for women," said Shawnee Scatliff, the chairwoman of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity. "We're for women competing as long as they want to. It's really up to the women."

The CIAU does not have a policy for dealing with pregnant athletes, said Marg McGregor, the chief executive officer. But she doesn't agree with the action taken by Netball Australia.

"I think the Australians are not as progressive in their attitudes to women in sport as we are," McGregor said. "The Australian Netball Association should take a look at this policy and rethink."

Meanwhile, adidas, the sports-wear manufacturer, began selling its Power of Two line of maternity wear in April. The line features swimsuits and various styles of sweat suits designed to keep expectant mothers comfortable while working out.

"Our business has been unbelievable," Power of Two president Jeffrey Malone said. "We got into it because of the demand, and it has more than surpassed our expectations."