Image from Gregory Bull/AP NPR Article: https://www.npr.org/sections/tokyo-olympics-live-updates/2021/07/29/1022066590/simone-biles-tweet-more-than-her-gymnastics-accomplishments-tokyo-olympics
This year, mental health has been featured in the newsfeed more than ever before. From Naomi Osaka to Simone Biles, athletes in all sports are allowing themselves to be vulnerable while discussing the challenges they face in and out of the arena, particularly the ones inside of their heads. Spectators seem to forget that our favorite athletes are human, too. Athletes frequently experience anxiety, doubt, and pressure, but during the Olympics, they experience these feelings in front of the entire world.
Simone Biles has been a household name since the 2016 Rio Olympics. She is the GOAT – the greatest of all time. However, after realizing her mental health was not where it needed to be during her vault rotation in the women’s team final, she withdrew from the event. She later withdrew from the women’s individual all-around competition as well. Despite her withdrawal from competition, Biles remained a staunch supporter of her teammates, cheering them on from the sideline. Her decision to focus on her mental health showed Biles’s strong leadership and courage. Her insight to protect her own safety as well as remove any possible negative impact on the team’s overall performance clearly depict valor in the face of succumbing to public pressure. Simone Biles has faced a year far more challenging than most realize, becoming an advocate for abuse survivors and having her scores capped due to having an “unfair advantage” over other gymnasts. Biles later revealed that the support she was given after her withdrawal from competition made her realize she was worth more than her accomplishments. Ultimately, Biles showed the public and the sports world that it’s okay for their athletes to not be at their best all the time, and that athletes deserve respect even when choosing not to compete.
Michael Phelps, who has earned 28 Olympic medals, came out in support of Biles after her withdrawal from the team and individual all-around events, saying that few know of the pressure that comes with being one of the most successful and decorated athletes in your sport. Phelps is one of the most decorated Olympians of all time, yet he revealed the depression and suicidal thoughts he faced after the 2012 Olympics. While many athletes have started to come forward about the weight of pressure that comes with being at the top of their sport, mental health issues continue to be a taboo subject. When Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open after event organizers threatened her removal after her decision to not participate in media events, she was criticized across the internet for not being “tough enough”.
Sha’Carri Richardson was unable to attend the Tokyo Olympics following a positive drug testing for marijuana in her system, which invalidated her times at the Trials. When asked about her test results, Richardson revealed she had learned of her biological mother’s passing from a reporter at the Trials. While some may disagree with her actions, no one can know the feelings Richardson experienced in those moments when faced with such loss. As Richardson herself said: she’s human, she just runs a little faster. Athletes should not have to remind the public that their mental health matters, too.
As the Tokyo Olympics continue, and more athletes come forward with their personal experiences with mental health, hopefully the public’s understanding and empathy will increase. In addition, the world of sports will hopefully start to take athlete mental health more seriously, taking proactive measures to protect, support and empower our athletes. The topic of mental health will only cease to be taboo when it is openly discussed. Strong mental health is an important and fundamental need for everyone, even those aiming for a gold medal. The athletes we love to watch are not only extremely talented, but human, and they deserve to be treated as such. If we want to keep watching these athletes compete and succeed, we should remember to extend them the same courtesy that we ourselves demand – respect.