“It is going to sneak up on you (at) any random time. It is not like I can say (to it) go away for today, come back tomorrow” — when one of the most decorated Olympians of all time, Michael Phelps, says this in an interview with the NBC news, it makes you wonder what was Simone Biles thinking, midair in the vault when she realised she had lost her way.
American gymnast Simone Biles on Tuesday dropped out of the women’s gymnastics team final, citing her mental health, in tandem, ending the chance the US team had for bagging their third consecutive Olympic title and paving the way for Russians to clinch the golden glory.
The Olympic Games can be a brutal and overwhelming place. So much so that the (usually) enigmatic Chinese athletes also succumbed to the high pressure at the shooting range when Wang Luyao finished 18th in the 10m air rifle event. If that was not enough, she was caught at the end of abuse and hatred after she posted — “Sorry everyone, I admit I chickened out” — on Weibo.
Just six hours before Biles had dropped the proverbial “bomb”, triggering several critics, including British journalist Piers Morgan who called it “nonsense”, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka crashed out of the Tokyo Games in the third round. It was the first time that the four-time Grand Slam-winner was participating in the Olympics. She also admitted to feeling a ‘lot of pressure’ at the international sporting event.
India’s weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, who took the country by surprise by clinching the silver medal, too, has been vocal about her ordeal with mental health after she fell short in Rio de Janeiro five years ago. She was “disappointed and depressed” to the extent that had, often, wondered if she should quit the sport. Thank god for India that she didn’t!
Anxiety among elite athletes
An International Olympic Committee statement from 2019 reported that rates of anxiety and depression among elite athletes, including Olympians, could be as high as 45 per cent.
But Tokyo is not like any other Olympics. The competition has never been stiffer and the will to achieve something and unlock that sense of achievement has never been stronger. There has been additional stress brought on by intermittent lockdowns due to the pandemic that delayed the games by a year. It disrupted both mental and physical training schedules and has now confined players to the bubble of the Olympic village.
Elite athletes, especially women, across the spectrum are opening up about mental health that has long been brushed under the carpet as a potential reason for underperformance in back-breaking competitions.
Selfish or wise?
Biles garnered support from fans and public figures alike, with many lauding her for prioritising her mental health and setting an example for younger athletes such as India’s shooters, who buckled down under performance pressure while competing in their first Olympics.
But not everyone is all praises for the four-time Olympic gold medallist. Several conservative experts agree with Morgan, or rather, have gone a step further to call out Biles for being ‘selfish’ and ‘arrogant’, and claim that she is not a “good role model for children.”
While much of the criticism subjected towards her is uncalled for, there does seem to be a valid concern when Morgan wonders if “mental health issues are now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport.” The remark was a dog-whistle to Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open and 18-year-old Briton Emma Raducanu’s retirement from her Wimbledon fourth-round match earlier this year.
Sports and mental health is a cocktail much less preferred to be discussed by people across the world, especially the ones in the position of power such as ‘accomplished’ athletes, organisers, and sports authorities.
And even when it is rarely brought to the fore, it is usually during a chat show, documentary, biography, or via a social media post after the athlete has retired, is on sabbatical or has, attained the stature of the G.O.A.T (Greatest of all time). Not to take away from their experiences and struggles with mental health, but there is a huge difference between these elite athletes merely ‘opening up’ to the younger brigade and putting the money where their mouth is.
Leaving a tournament midway through when you are one of the top-seeded players or withdrawing right when you are an inch away from the gold and setting an all-time Olympic record requires courage that not many can even comprehend.
Like Biles said, putting one’s pride aside and doing what’s right for the mind and body is much more important, rather wiser and mature than to mindlessly run after a medal.
‘Pawns of social media’
While we applaud the likes of Osaka and Biles for prioritising mental well-being and leading by example, it is necessary to dig in deeper. We must try to understand if there is a pattern or rationale behind elite athletes from Generation Z being more vocal and, maybe, more affected by mental trauma.
Roger Federer or Serena Williams, both considered the ‘GOATs of Tennis’ and born in 1981, grew up in a time when the world was ‘simpler’ and social media was not a part of their lives. Unlike them, Osaka and Biles, aged 23 and 24, respectively, perhaps would have known social media since they were teenagers, or maybe even earlier! You win one major match and the next you know, you are an overnight sensation across the world. And just like that, in a matter of days, scores of fans and trolls are just a click away.
Not to take away from the senior’s struggles or juniors’ talent and skillset, but it cannot be easy to live in the shoes of a 23-year-old Osaka who faces racist abuse due to her dual ethnicity and 24-year-old Biles who was sexually assaulted. For survivors, social media, more often than not, can become a toxic space infested with trolls who offer nothing but hate. In such circumstances, critics will do well to remind themselves of the times we live in and try to sympathise with, if not understand, the plight of a young sportsperson.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.