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Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles: Is the weight of an Olympic medal greater than mental health?

By Tanya Lara Published Jul 28, 2021 6:06 pm

No glory comes without sacrifice—but at what price?

Sure it takes a village to raise an Olympic medalist. Every elite athlete has a team of trainers, nutritionists and healthcare professionals for support, yet when their mental health collapses and affects their performance, it’s a solitary hurt no one can fully unburden them of.

Two of the most watched athletes at the Tokyo Olympics have refocused the world’s attention on the mental struggles athletes go through and the toll the games exact on them.

World tennis No. 2 Naomi Osaka was defeated by No. 42 Marketa Vondrousova in the third round of the Tokyo Olympics. 

Four-time Tennis Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka, ranked No. 2 by the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association), was knocked out of the games on July 27 in a shocking loss to Marketa Vondrousava, ranked No. 42.

What should have been a straight-set victory for Osaka became her most stinging defeat when she lost 6-1, 6-4.

When she lit the Olympic cauldron on July 23 to open the Tokyo Games, observers felt that the girl had gotten her mojo back, that she was well and healthy.

She later said that lighting the cauldron was “undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life.”

Just four days later, she said of her third-round defeat, “I’m disappointed in every loss, but I feel like this one sucks more than the others.”

Osaka was born in Japan and raised in the US since she was a child. She had to give up her US citizenship to compete for Japan as the country’s laws require a “declaration of choice” and renounce the other citizenship before turning 22.

As if Osaka’s shocking exit wasn’t enough, later in the day superstar gymnast Simone Biles of Team USA withdrew from the team final.

As Time put it, people “were left wondering—was she injured? Was she feeling sick? What many didn’t really consider—or considered and dismissed quickly—was that Biles simply wasn’t feeling mentally fit to compete.”

Team USA’s Simone Biles: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”

Biles was replaced in the three remaining routines on the uneven bars, beam, and floor. She put on her Team USA jacket and cheered her teammates from the floor.

“Simone has withdrawn from the team final competition due to a medical issue,” a statement from USA Gymnastics said. “She will be assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions.”

A day later, she also withdrew from all individual events. 

Biles stopped the speculations when she said categorically, “I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and my wellbeing.”

She wrote on Instagram: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”

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A post shared by Simone Biles (@simonebiles)

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, a former teammate of Biles who retired last year, said that Biles had been under immense pressure leading up to Tokyo because of the weight of expectation. “There’s only so much someone can take, she’s human.”

Like when Osaka withdrew from the French Open in May saying she was suffering from depression, there has been an outpouring of support for Biles since yesterday.

UNICEF executive director Henrietta H. Fore thanked Biles “for being a role model and showing the world it’s okay to prioritize your mental health.”

AFP reported that at Wimbledon earlier this month, the relatively unknown Briton Emma Raducanu, 18, reached the fourth round then pulled out of the match with what was first described as “breathing difficulties.” She later said that the “whole experience caught up with me.”

Mental health struggles are obviously not confined to women or to the Olympics. England and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford said that he too had suffered something similar when he was a teenager. NBA star Kevin Love in 2018 said that he suffered a panic attack during a match.

Michael Phelps, who has 28 Olympic medals, said in 2018 that after the London Olympics he sat in his bedroom for three to five days, “just not wanting to be alive.”

Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps has openly talked about being depressed. In 2018, the most decorated Olympian (28 medals) admitted to the audience of the Kennedy Forum, a behavioral health advocacy group, “You do contemplate suicide.”

“Really, after every Olympics I think I fell into a major state of depression,” Phelps said. He felt a pattern of emotion “that just wasn’t right.”

The “hardest fall,” he said, was after the London Olympics in 2012, when he “didn’t want to be in the sport anymore ... I didn’t want to be alive anymore.” He sat in his bedroom for three to five days, hardly sleeping or eating and “just not wanting to be alive.”

According to 2020 data from Athletes for Hope, 35% of elite athletes deal with a mental crisis that “may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety.”

Julie-Ann Tullberg, an expert in sports psychology and sports journalism at Monash University in Australia, said, “Mental health has long been swept under the carpet as a reason of underperformance in high-pressure sporting events such as the Olympic Games. However, athletes are now willing to talk about their pressures openly.”

According to Tullberg, performance anxiety for everyone—not just athletes—has been exacerbated by living in lockdowns during the pandemic.

Without spectators and confined to the Athletes Village, she continued, competitors can’t celebrate like they did before. “They used to be able to go out and party after their events, but now they’re not able to do that, for the first time in recent history.”

The first Filipino Olympic gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz endured exile in Malaysia where she was training when the pandemic happened.

In pre- and post-Olympic interviews, she said candidly that with gyms closed in Kuala Lumpur, she had to train using heavy water bottles and make do with the inclined parking lot in her apartment building. But when she talked about how she hadn’t seen her family since 2019, there was deep anguish in her voice and you can almost feel the isolation she experienced despite being with her team.

The isolation the pandemic has forced on everyone—Olympic athletes especially who had to train during this time and now carry the weight of their own and their countries’ dreams on their shoulders—has changed the way the world sees their mental struggles.

Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, told CBC/Radio-Canada that Biles’ admission would help “normalize the conversation.”

“There has always been, within the athletic world, the emphasis on appearing physically fit and appearing mentally fit. And that can further perpetuate a kind of silent suffering and self-isolation,” she said.

Former US gymnast Raisman said on ESPN, “When I was training there really weren’t resources for us to talk about our mental health or even ways to understand it. We need to be asking the organizations like USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee: What are you doing to support your athletes and how can we prevent athletes feeling like they are struggling so much that they can’t finish the competition?” —with a report from AFP