There has been an outpouring of support for gymnast Simone Biles after she withdrew from the Tokyo Olympic Games all round team event mid-way through the competition. Many past and present Olympians have applauded her decision to look after her mental health, and in so doing, gave all of us the permission to take care of ourselves. The phrase ‘she is a person before a gymnast’ has been uttered repeatedly – as it should be. Even the G.O.A.T is human.
Naomi Osaka – the face of the Tokyo Games – pulled out of the French Open and Wimbledon earlier this year due to ongoing battles with depression and anxiety after winning her first Grand Slam in 2018. Then, after losing her 3rd round match in Tokyo this week she said that the pressure was so overwhelming she just could not cope with it. She too is not a tennis machine, but a real live person. Sometimes, like Biles, the pressure of expectation is just too heavy a yoke to bear.
Closer to home in South Africa, seven months ago, I wrote about the tragic story of Luvo Manyonga, South Africa’s World Champion long jumper, and the need to talk more openly and honestly about mental health struggles. Clearly this issue is not going away, and at last there seems to be a slow dawning realisation that it needs to be address it more effectively because we seem to have created a world where even the greatest of all time cannot withstand the scrutiny and pressure any longer.
Biles and Osaka have ultimately experienced the trauma of success. Being the best at what you do sets a standard like no other. Even South African swimming legend Penny Heyns has spoken about the fact that after winning double gold in Atlanta 1996, anything less than that at the 2000 Sydney Games would be considered a failure by others (and herself). On top of this, Osaka and Biles have been handed the weight of responsibility to represent not just a country, but as black women, a whole race and gender as well, and in the case of Biles, survivors of abuse as well. All this when they are not even 25 years old. Almost no other job on the planet has this level emotional investment by the general public, is performed so publicly, and demands near perfection every single time.
What is also clear is that the stigma, in large part, till exists when it comes to the mind and mental health. Throughout these Games we have heard underperforming athletes say something along the lines of ‘the body just couldn’t respond today’. We all feel terrible for them that their body let them down and offer encouragement that they are still champions for trying. But when we have an athlete that says ‘my mind just didn’t respond’, if you listen carefully, you will hear the loud whispers of ‘coward’ and ‘quitter’ all over social media. The body letting an athlete down is acceptable, it seems we think they have no choice in the matter and therefore they are exempt from criticism. But we are not so ready to accept that the mind could simply not respond, and we hold the athlete accountable for it: how dare they choose not to tough it out and keep going.
This is due in part to the way we have fetishized positivity to the point of toxicity. The ‘just be positive and believe in yourself’ platitude is just that, a statement lacking any depth or true understanding of the real human condition. The narrative is that if an athlete cannot handle the pressure, they are simply choosing to let their mind be ‘negative’. They are to blame. Some people have even contrasted Biles’s departure to the ‘heroics’ of Kerri Strug in Atlanta 1996. Strug performed her final vault on a broken foot to give the USA a gold medal in the all-round team competition. Surely, if she could perform on a broken foot, Biles could have continued to perform with a simple ‘mind issue’?
But if you look a little closer at this ‘heroic’ act you see the really very dark side of sport. One of the most horrifying photographs captured in sport must be Strug being helped off the matt by Marta and Bela Karolyi and being handed over to Dr Larry Nassar. Yes, the coaches who owned the gym where Nassar sexually abused gymnasts for close to 20 years (including Biles herself). Strug’s vault was not a representation of the triumph of the human spirt and embodiment all the Olympics stands for. At only 18 years old, having grown up in this abusive environment, Strug was at the mercy of her abusers at a an incredibly vulnerable moment, and simply did what she was asked to do despite the damage to her physical and mental wellbeing. The comparisons between her and Biles are ignorant at best, and at worst, continue to collude with abuse in the name of performance.
Part of the problem is that great athletes live in the rarefied air of superhuman achievement, and we can forget that they are in fact mere mortals like the rest of us. Probably more truthfully, we want to forget that are normal human beings. Society seems to need superhumans as a reassurance that we can be strong and powerful, we can defy the odds and we can overcome the fragility of life. But surely a more useful perspective is to celebrate Olympians in all their humanness, knowing that they are just ordinary people doing extraordinary things. When they are imperfect, the body lets them down, or their mental skills are overwhelmed under pressure, this is the critical teachable moment. This is the moment we should teach our children that is it okay to embrace their own humanity, imperfections and all. This is the moment we should teach our children that their self-worth is not dependant on some athletic outcome. This is the moment that we teach our children that life is complex, beautiful, joyful and painful, and to really live means experiencing the full width and breadth of life. This is the Olympic spirit.