The pressure encountered by top athletes

The shocking news that gymnast Simone Biles has withdrawn from her events at the Olympics due to mental health issues, following Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from two Grand Slam tennis tournaments for the same reason, has turned a massive spotlight on the pressure that these top athletes are under. Biles was seen as the marquee athlete of this Olympics, like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps in previous games, and expected to win accordingly. Those of us who have never come close to being in such stratospheric levels of athletic achievement may find it hard to appreciate the pressure these people are under, expected to perform at their peak under the close scrutiny of large numbers of people. The cameras are on them all the time, even when they are just stretching or chatting to people.

While there have been a few small minded people who have accused Biles of being selfish (and few people have smaller minds than smarmy Piers Morgan) and not gutting it out for the sake of obtaining medals for the US team, I was glad to see so many other top athletes, such as Phelps and Katie Ledecky, speaking out on her behalf and saying that they too have felt the pressure and can empathize with Biles.

Aaron Freedman writes that Biles deciding not to compete because of concerns about her health is no different from any other person who decides to stay home from work because they are sick. Gymnastics is a highly dangerous activity. If you lose concentration, you can fall badly and cause serious and life-changing injuries to your body. Freedman refutes the idea that these athletes ‘owe’ the fans anything.

Implicit in the hate for, or at least skepticism of, Osaka and Biles is the idea that athletes owe “us” — fans, viewers, a nation — something. Society has long projected onto athletes an aspirational view of the human spirit, able to transcend the very laws of physics and achieve greatness. Like Prometheus, their task is to capture something of the divine and let us mere mortals bask in it. In watching a world-class gymnast like Simone Biles, we are taught to believe, we are inspired to reach for the exceptional in our own lives.

As powerful as this narrative is, it treats athletes as some fusion of gods, symbols, and soldiers, rather than what they are: real people with their own human needs and flaws. At a fundamental level, an athlete — even a GOAT like Simone Biles — is an entertainment worker. A highly talented and appropriately compensated entertainment worker, no doubt, but should the god-athlete ever fall short of the impossible expectations hurled at them, they are treated little better than a waiter whose tip has been revoked by a mercurial patron.

Former Olympic gymnast Dominique Moceanu describes how she felt she had no say about her own health and as a result fell on her head during her routine because she was nursing a leg injury. She praises Biles for walking away.

It is signifiant that Biles and Osaka and Phelps and Ledecky are solo performers. Perhaps it is easier if you are in a team sport where the attention us spread around and the pressure lessened, though if the team is small, like in basketball, and you are a player around which the team is focused and whose performance is crucial, like Stephan Curry or LeBron James, the pressure could be heavy too.

It is true that these top athletes got where they are partly because of the pressure they put on themselves to strive harder and harder. That pressure may have initially come from family and coaches when they were young but become internalized as they got older. You cannot get that good at anything without really wanting to and driving yourself hard.

It will be interesting to see where this goes. Osaka and Biles have made this an issue that cannot be ignored. Will the sports bodies try to find ways to ease the pressure? What could they do? Getting rid of the requirement to give interviews to reporters would be a good start. But it is hard to see what other measures can be taken because ultimately the problem is societal, that the general public places far too much importance on these kinds of activities, seeing them as vehicles for generating local and national pride and achieving a vicarious sense of achievement.

The attitude that ‘It’s only a game’ may be too hard to recover with so much money involved.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    How to remove the pressure? Require them to be amateurs. Ban sponsorship and appearance fees. No money, no pressure.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    What’s “selfish” about giving up the spotlight to a teammate, anyway?

  3. garnetstar says

    Well, sports bodies could try treating athletes with even the smallest shred of decency.

    USA gymnastics and the US Olympic committee sat by and allowed Biles and other gymnasts to be sexually, physically, and emotionally abused. Those two bodies let that happen for decades. Biles said just before these Games that she would not allow daughters of hers to enter gymnastics under these bodies. Biles’ former teammate and team captain Aly Raisman said a couple weeks ago that neither sports body could be trusted to protect with the gymnasts’ physical or mental health at these games.

    The pressure on Biles would have been a lot less if the sports bodies that she must work under could be relied upon to protect her health in any way. They can’t, and won’t, so she knows that she is on her own. (Aly Raisman also said that, duh, the stress on her, Aly, during the 2012 Olympics would have been a lot less if she hadn’t been sexually abused *during* the games: apparently the sports bodies needed that pointed out to them.)

    So, basic decency and not allowing physical, mental, and of course sexual, abuse, would help.

  4. John Morales says

    I can’t get worked up about it.

    It’s her job (how she makes a living), so if she feels she can take time out, fine.

    (Basically, she’s an entertainer)

  5. Allison says

    I can’t get worked up about it.

    What they’re describing is an abusive workplace, abetted by pretty much the whole society. Their choice is to put up with being raped, exploited, and forced to do permanent injury to themselves, or to basically give up the career they’ve spent most of their life training for (or been forced since early childhood to train for) and start over at the bottom as unskilled labor (“will you have fries with that?”)

    The fact that nobody seemed to care — or even seems to care now (you included) — is an example of the pervasive sexist attitude that, essentially, women exist to be used and exploited by men. (Cf. Harvey Weinstein)

  6. Allison says

    Require them to be amateurs.

    There is (or was) already an explicit requirement that the athletes be “amateurs,” originally because the (modern) Olympics were expected to be the exclusive reserve of privileged white men. However, the definition of “amateur” has been so narrowed and whittled away that it only ever comes up when the men who run the games want a pretext to exclude someone.

    I fail to see how adding a requirement that already exists (but is essentially a dead letter) will change anything.

  7. John Morales says

    Allison, care to explain why you think my attitude is sexist?

    The topic is “The pressure encountered by top athletes” — i.e. entertainers.

    I care no more and no less about the men. Or anyone in between.

    (If gymnastics or even the Olympics vanished overnight, I would not care one whit)

  8. kestrel says

    Yeah, I find this idea that athletes have to just tough it out and go in there injured to be really problematic -- because you know, if a horse is injured, *it is withdrawn*. A Canadian horse had a minor injury that occured during training in Japan right before he was to be presented and he was withdrawn. Don’t get me wrong, I’m super glad they care about the horses enough to withdraw them, I just think it’s a shame we don’t care enough about humans to do the same thing. I mean, no one is speaking out scathingly about Pavarotti (the Canadian horse that was injured) and how he’s let Canada down or anything. Why can’t we treat that 14 year old child in your link (Dominique Moceanu) as well as we treat Pavarotti? Let alone like a human being and therefore even better?

  9. sonofrojblake says

    @Allison, 6:

    I fail to see how adding a requirement that already exists (but is essentially a dead letter) will change anything

    You fail to see how actually enforcing a rule that you yourself have to admit is ignored would change anything? You fail to see how making the participants true amateurs would change anything? I’m not sure I can help you.

    The issue as presented is the pressure that these people are under affecting their mental health. They’re under that pressure (and in some cases forced to be so) because of the potential rewards of success, financial rewards specifically. It seems simple to the point of insulting to explain to you that if there were no financial rewards of any kind for being e.g. an Olympic gymnast, the number of people who found themselves “forced” to participate would plummet drastically, which would be better for everyone, wouldn’t it?

    Ban sponsorship, ban grants, scholarships, ban ANY form of payment for participating in sport, even to cover expenses. Then nobody will feel forced to do it and everyone’s mental health will improve. Win-win.

  10. John Morales says


    Ban sponsorship, ban grants, scholarships, ban ANY form of payment for participating in sport, even to cover expenses. Then nobody will feel forced to do it and everyone’s mental health will improve.

    You don’t know people who play sports, do ya?

    Trust me, some people will bust their guts to perform, even if it causes them pain and suffering and all they get is the satisfaction of having tried.
    Call it pride, call it ego, but I’ve seen it.

    I mean, you do have a point, but it’s not an absolute one.

  11. Katydid says

    Only it’s not just “mental health” issues. She’s lost the ability to know where her body is, which would easily be fatal in a sport like gymnastics where many of their moves are extremely dangerous even to people on top of their game. It’s not like she’s a golfer whose worst problem is missing a shot if her body and mind aren’t communicating accurately. There’s scads of documentation about gymnasts who’ve ended up paralyzed or dead from mistakes. Kerri Strug, who was pressured into vaulting on a broken ankle, never performed again.

    It’s to her credit that she pulled back and let someone else take her place, as pressured as she was to entertain losers who think it’s the ultimate abuse and physical torture to have to wear a mask for 20 minutes in Walmart.

  12. steve oberski says

    Having participated in marathons and triathlons for much of my life (sadly no more due to entropy) I can understand the imperative to push oneself to the limit and beyond to the point of injury.

    In my case it was simple physiological calculus, I had reached the point where I was spending more time recovering from training induced injuries then actually training so I stopped.

    Of course for Olympic “amateur” athletes, the risk/benefit ratio is skewed far more in the benefit direction (medals, sponsorships, etc.) than mine ever was.

  13. garnetstar says

    @12, yes, gymnasts and divers have that happen sometimes: gymnasts call it “the twisties”. It’s been all over the internet these last days.

    Gymnasts said it’s like driving a speeding car down the highway, trying to merge or pass other cars, and suddenly losing your ingrained memory of how to drive a car. You try to think how to work the gas and the brakes and the wheel, but it’s in your muscle memory, which has disconnected. It’s that dangerous.

    sonofrojblake @9, I’m not sure about the “amateur” rule either. Thirty years ago, when gymnastics was just as abusive and pressured as it is now, a lot of the money that athletes, or their families, strove for was for *after* they’d left competitive sports. The fame and glory of the Olympics, which would translate to sponsorships, etc., after they’d won medals. So, I’m not sure that that would change a thing.

  14. mnb0 says

    Lovely, such ignorants in this thread. Most athletes don’t make money at all -- even in insanely paid sports like football (the global version) and basketball only a minority gets rich.
    Gymnasts typically don’t get paid and hence gymnastics is not a job; their sponsorship is barely enough to pay the expenses. Let alone sports like archery and clay pigeon shooting. Now ask the practisers in Japan if they experience tension. I guarantee that the answer will be “yes”.
    So a chunk of the comments in this thread is totally irrelevant. The basic question is who decides to keep on competing or not. I say: the athletes themselves and certainly not some stupid self declared patriots.

    “The shocking news that …..”
    Sorry, I find this not shocking at all. The training regime of gymnasts is incredibly tough and begins at a very young age. I don’t know about basketball, but football players in our days already sign contracts when they’re 8 or 9 for clubs like Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax. It’s unavoidable that for some sports(wo)men things go wrong now and then.

  15. garnetstar says

    mnbo @15, it’s not going wrong “now or then” for women gymnasts. The training has been flat-out physical, mental, and emotional abuse for these thirty years at least. I’ve heard very few gymnasts, from any country, who’ve said that their experience was different. The sexual abuse of children, in this one known instance in the US, started about two decades ago. All kinds of abuse of girls in this sport is a feature, nothing “now and then” about it. Another example of what Allison @5 said, a pervasive sexist attitude.

  16. sonofrojblake says

    @John Morales, 10:
    Among my friends is a 2018 European Champion, so yes, I do know some people who play sports to a reasonable level.

    some people will bust their guts to perform, even if it causes them pain and suffering and all they get is the satisfaction of having tried

    I’m one of those. I didn’t bust my guts, I bust my tiba and fibula and couldn’t walk for six months. Nobody outside a tiny circle knew or cared. I pulled out of the sport altogether. Ditto. There was no pressure, because I was doing it entirely out of my own pocket and for my own satisfaction -- my mortgage didn’t depend on it.

    @mnb0, 15:

    Most athletes don’t make money at all […] only a minority gets rich

    Absolutely true. A minority gets rich. Which presents a target for EVERYONE, and a high pressure one at that -- you must be the winner to score that big payout, second place is nothing, and so on.

    Only a minority of people get rich off the lottery… but hordes of people still buy lottery tickets. The promise of the big payout is a great lure overcoming even basic maths skills…

  17. John Morales says

    sonofrojblake, that was my point. Not all pressure to perform is external — a competitive spirit suffices.

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