by Fionna Farrell
[originally published July 2021]
It is hard to perform at our best when we are functioning at our worst. The average American living in 2021 knows this as well as any Olympic athlete does. And yet, when the latter group suffers, they bring shame to an entire country. The rest of us are mostly concerned with saving face in front of our friends.
Mental health struggle is nothing new to the Olympics. Perhaps only the conversation surrounding it is. It is estimated that up to 35% of Olympic athletes grapple with mental disorders at some point in their careers, which can entail anything from substance abuse and burnout to more generalized depression and anxiety. There are various triggers to these sorts of disorders, many of which are uniquely pertinent to the Olympain’s incredibly demanding lifestyle. These can include poor sleep, select training pressures, or premature retirement due to injury. For many, just the title of “Olympian” at all can be a serious source of distress and dread. What happens when the Games are over? What is there to aim for when you’ve already won the gold?
More golds, maybe. Some of the highest-achieving Olympians out there have also been the ones most candid about their struggles. For example, Michael Phelps--who has won 23 gold medals--has been a long time sufferer of depression and suicidal ideation. In 2016, after retiring from swimming, he said “I thought of myself as ‘just a swimmer.’ Not a human being.”
2021 has forced us to face this question head-on. Do we really consider our athletes as human? Do we, and the Olympic infrastructure at large, grant them the respect and empathy that they so deeply deserve? Or are our Olympic athletes a vessel of escapist exploitation---do we glimpse in them our own last moments of reverie?
This is an impossibly complex question to answer, but we can start by examining the recent cases of Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka. As many are well aware, Biles is a 24-year-old world-class gymnast, decorated with seven Olympic medals and officially tied with Larisa Latynina as the most decorated gymnast of all time. Naomi Osaka has been ranked No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association, is a four-time Grand Slam singles champion, and is the reigning champion at the US Open and Australian Open. These women will easily go down in history as the best of the best within their field.
It came as something of a shock when Biles dropped out of the Olympic individual all-around competition earlier this month. This had come only the day after the champion had dropped out of the team finals, after competing in just one of four events. Biles cited her mental health as one of the main factors in her decision to withdraw. “I felt like it would be better to take a back seat,” she said. “I didn’t want to risk the team a medal because they worked way too hard for my screwups.” USA Gymnastics states: “Her courage showed, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.”
Naomi Osaka underwent a similar experience earlier this year, beyond the Olympic arena. In May, the second-in-the-world champion dropped out of the French open after facing a $15,000 fine for declining to take part in media interviews. She had cited mental health reasons for not wanting to meet with the press during the tournament. Osaka spoke of her struggles: "I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly. The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018." In June, the star dropped out of Wimbledon in order to spend “some personal time with friends and family.”
The public and press has maintained a largely positive response to these women’s courageous decisions. However, the minority remains vocal: that is, there is still a slew of critics out there who find it their job to lambaste these women for taking a seat, as it has somehow posed a personal affront to their values. Piers Morgan blasted, “Sorry Simone Biles, but there’s nothing heroic or brave about quitting because you’re not having ‘fun.’” Charlie Kirk called Biles a “selfish sociopath” and a “shame to the country.” Clay Travis: “USA gymnastics should pull Simone Biles’s ability to compete as an individual going forward & elevate the next best gymnast to the all around competitions.” The list goes on of mostly angry Twitter rants, from those inflamed individuals who feel like they’re owed something by an internationally-renowned 24-year-old.
What this really reflects, of course, is nothing about our world-famous athletes, but a much more disappointing truth: that, after all that 2020 has wrought upon us, with mental health declining everywhere at a staggering rate, and we still insist on holding others to an impossible standard---one we are exempt from ourselves. What will it take for us to understand our athletes as humans, if not a pandemic? It is a bitter realization to come to, one that we still have not learned to trust and sympathize with each other. Perhaps the conversation surrounding mental health needs to be an even louder one — one that the critics can either take part in, or be deafened by.