The shocking news that gymnast Simone Biles has withdrawn from her events at the Olympics due to mental health issues, following Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from two Grand Slam tennis tournaments for the same reason, has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.
I was 14 y/o w/ a tibial stress fracture, left alone w/ no cervical spine exam after this fall. I competed in the Olympic floor final minutes later. @Simone_Biles 🤍 decision demonstrates that we have a say in our own health—“a say” I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian. pic.twitter.com/LVdghdAh1g
— Dominique Moceanu (@Dmoceanu) July 28, 2021
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.