Aliphine Tuliamuk measures her life out in increments rarely exceeding about three hours. She won the marathon at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials in just more than two hours 27 minutes. She structures her training days ahead of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics so that she can breastfeed her four-month-old daughter, Zoe, between her morning run, her massage, her weight-training session and her afternoon run. As best she can recall, she has managed to never be away from Zoe for more than three hours at any time.
Leaving her behind for upward of a week to run the Olympic marathon is not something Tuliamuk can fathom.
“If I’m going to perform my best, she’s going to have to be there with me – and I hope she will be,” she said in a recent video interview.
But less than 10 weeks from the Olympics’ opening ceremony and less than 12 weeks from the women’s marathon, which will be staged Aug. 7 in Sapporo, Japan, Tuliamuk, 32, still doesn’t know whether her petition to allow her fiance Tim Gannon and baby Zoe to accompany her to the Summer Games – which would require an exception to Japan’s ban on foreign spectators – will be approved. She stopped short of issuing an ultimatum, but desperately hopes such a painful choice is never required.
“I am still nursing Zoe and cannot imagine her not being with me,” she said.
When the IOC and the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee announced the ban on foreign spectators in March – a concession to the global coronavirus pandemic that continues to spread in parts of the world, including Japan, potentially threatening the viability of the Games – an immediate question was whether the ban applied to infant children of female Olympians. At least so far, the answer is yes.
Tuliamuk may have the youngest child of any U.S. Olympian – she and Gannon had planned on starting a family following the Tokyo 2020 Games, and decided to move up the timeline when the decision was made to postpone the Olympics until 2021, with Tuliamuk giving birth to Zoe in January – but she is not alone.
Tennis superstar Serena Williams has a three-year-old daughter and suggested earlier this month she would skip the Tokyo Olympics if forced to leave the child behind.
“I haven’t spent 24 hours without her, so that kind of answers the question itself,” Williams told reporters before the Italian Open. “We’re best friends.”
Soccer star Alex Morgan has a daughter, Charlie, who turned a year old earlier this month, and has said she doesn’t know what she would do if Charlie isn’t allowed to join her in Japan.
“I’m just still very hopeful that I’ll have my daughter with me,” Morgan told reporters during a conference call. “It’s important to allow mothers the option to have their kids with them when they compete. If a child is under one or two, they might still be breastfeeding, so that’s a huge piece of it.”
Track star Allyson Felix, a nine-time Olympic medalist, is competing to make her fifth Olympic team as a sprinter – but her first since giving birth to daughter Camryn in Nov. 2018. “The driving force” for this pursuit, she told reporters last month, “has been this idea that Cammy would be there. And I imagine seeing her at the track and all that. But obviously no one knew a pandemic would be coming.”
Though Felix said she would love to have her daughter with her if she makes it to Tokyo, priority should be given to mothers with babies.
“I would be most sensitive to moms who are breastfeeding,” she said. “I know for me, when I competed when Cammy was under a year old – you need to be near your child.”
In prior Olympics, it was rarely an issue for female athletes to bring their children and domestic partners or caregivers to the Games. They typically would travel together and stay at lodging outside the Olympic Village, or the athlete would stay in the village and arrange visits around her training and competition schedule.
But this year, because of fears of the virus turning the Games into a superspreader event, organizers are exercising tight controls over who will be permitted to attend, with countries limited to roughly the same number of credentials for support personnel – mostly officials, coaches and medical staff – as the number of athletes in the delegation. For Team USA, that would be around 600. No other foreign visitors, including family members, are permitted to attend.
Japan’s government also currently bans visitors from 159 countries, including the U.S., unless under “special exceptional circumstances” – a designation that includes accredited members of official Olympic delegations.
In a statement issued by its media office, the IOC said that requests to bring children will have to be resolved by individual countries’ Olympic committees.
“As stated by the Japanese parties in their conclusion not to allow entry into Japan for overseas spectators for the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, based on the present situation of the pandemic, it is highly unlikely that entry into Japan will be guaranteed this summer for unaccredited people from overseas,” the statement said. “National Olympic Committees (NOCs) are responsible for the composition of their delegations at Games time and the IOC is aware that a small number of them have been dealing with requests from athletes to bring their children on a case-by-case basis.”
That would mean the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee essentially would be forced to leave another person off their already bare-bones credentials list for each child or domestic partner added.
Jon Mason, senior director of communications for the USOPC, said requests such as Tuliamuk’s would be handled on a case-by-case basis, and that the organization would continue to work with the national governing bodies (in this case, USA Track and Field), the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee and the Japanese government “to find a solution.” Susan Hazzard, managing director for communications for USATF, did not return an email message.
“The health of the Japanese hosts is our utmost concern, as well,” Mason said. “We are partners in that.”
Should she be approved to travel to Japan, even baby Zoe would be subject to the strict coronavirus testing regime that will be in place before and during the Olympics – with a negative test required before boarding her flight, another upon arrival in Japan and additional testing roughly every other day while in the country – as well as limits on movement during her stay. But Tuliamuk would be more than willing to follow such rules to have Zoe in Tokyo.
“I’m grateful to know everyone is working really hard to help make this work,” Tuliamuk said. “I’m just not ready to leave her behind.”