Mental health has been in the sporting spotlight recently, with the headlines centred on Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka pulling out from events and press duties in order to better look after their mental health. Lulu writes about some of the reactions to this news and the mental health discussion that’s all over the internet currently.
It’s their job, and they’re entitled to care for their health, both physical and mental. If they’d pulled out due to broken legs, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.
I’ll level with you, I’ve not yet had the energy or motivation to watch a single minute of the Olympics so far, but I have kept a keen eye on how the whole Simone Biles saga has been unfolding, and I’d followed the Osaka announcements when they landed some time before. Osaka spoke quite frankly about the anxiety caused by the press duties she’s expected to perform. I remember the atmosphere when she won against Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open Final, robbing her of the chance to truly relish in her victory. As a fellow introvert, I can fully understand the anxiety she feels from those public appearances, and how it can be quite different from talking with her racket on the court. It made me appreciate the high levels of intensity and scrutiny players are under, often at crunch times when adrenaline is still pumping through their bodies and they’ve not yet processed what’s happened. Perhaps I’m too used to the sheer banality of football post-match interviews that almost never provide anything of interest to have really registered that being probed by questions in the immediate aftermath, especially if you’ve just lost, is intrusive and potentially very anxiety or stress-inducing.
A backlash to these announcements arrived, not unexpectedly so, but with an awaited dull ache of weary inevitability. I don’t even want to name names here, to give any more oxygen to people that seem to lack empathy or understanding. There are two broad camps of people that I’m looking at here in this post.
First up is the uninformed commenter. You know the type, the ones that walk off their own shows after thirty seconds of legitimate criticism of their targeted harassment of a black woman and her mental health. Well, they’re back, criticising Simone Biles, another black woman talking about her mental health. The stance of these types of commenters seems to be that Biles and Osaka owe us, the entitled public, a series of performances on the global stage with no ifs, buts, or maybes. Given that it’s a televised event broadcast around the world, you can almost understand it. You might have been looking forward to the Olympics all year, even longer as it’s been delayed, and you wanted to see how Biles and the rest of her team were going to do.
Then you take a step back. You calm down. Your breathing and your heartbeat slow. And you realise something, something you should have factored in from the start: they don’t owe us anything. It’s their job, and they’re entitled to care for their health, both physical and mental. If they’d pulled out due to broken legs, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. Even the most pointlessly incendiary commenters are able to reconcile that broken legs impedes one’s gymnastics ability.
And also, people pull out of high-profile events all the time! People pull out of conferences, conventions, films, TV shows, music concerts all sorts, and for all kinds of reasons – it’s called “shit happens”. Sometimes you need to cancel an event, and that’s it. It sucks, for all parties, but it happens. This parasocial owning of people’s performances just because they’re well-known and on TV is an uncomfortable trend, one that’s seemingly here to stay, fuelled by social media (I could go on for a long time about parasocial relationships, as they are fascinating, but it would be more than a tangent at this point).
Apathy and complacency have conditioned many of us to accept conditions in our work that damage our mental health.
The second group I’m looking at are their fellows from the sporting world, who seem to take the line that they just need to suck it up, that this is the way it’s always been and to succeed one just needs a thicker skin. Once again, it borders on sounding reasonable, the idea that it is all “part of the job” and that they’ve let the side down by not playing their part.
Once again, we’re gonna take a step back. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Oh yeah, that’s really absurd and damaging. Not the deep breathing, that bit’s fine. Keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of genuine attacks on our mental health really isn’t healthy. Apathy and complacency have conditioned many of us to accept conditions in our work that damage our mental health. I think that it’s important to note that it’s not our fault that we think this way, when we may fear reprisals or the financial damage that missing just one paycheque can inflict upon us. The system that tries to squeeze productivity out of us is a hard one to fight against when we are also dependent on the money provided to live and participate in society. But these sports folk – and other celebrities taking action against unacceptable working conditions or abuse in the wider world, such as actors fighting against dodgy contracts and despicably awful and abusive working environments – are able to use their privilege on being financially stable or just plain stinking rich to make a stand. They have the money to back themselves in such a fight, which is not something that’s often granted to other people. (Resentment of the money and power that professional athletes have is also a factor in all this backlash and why people may go along with these toxic opinions, making us ignore that these are still human beings.) Perhaps any change they can effect will benefit not only their sectors but ripple across to other strata of society. We can only hope!
It is promising that, despite the backlash and all the online idiots (just simply a ubiquitous issue these days), mental health is being discussed in more public arenas, and being taken seriously by some people. It would have been more encouraging had it come from the top-down, rather than from the people on the frontline taking a stand from a place of necessity, but progress is slow and tedious. It’s welcome to see people taking their mental health as seriously as their physical health. It can really help to break that initial barrier for others in dealing with their own mental health, removing the stigma, normalising the discussion, give them perspective that maybe they need to take a time out from things themselves, that they need to talk things out.