Written by: Aaron Wong Jielun (21-I4), Elizabeth Khoo Yuk Min (21-U1), Emma Shuen Lee (21-O1), Katelyn Joshy (21-U1), Lim Zi Loong, Zexel (21-E2), Rakshita Murugan (21-E1), Tiew Zuo Yuan, Richard (21-I2)
Designed by: Lay Kai En, Ashley (21-O1)
Everyone expected American gymnast Simone Biles to come to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to make history — after all, with a total of 32 Olympic and world medals, she is arguably the most accomplished athlete of all time. And she did, albeit not in the way the world anticipated.
After stumbling during the qualifying rounds and losing herself midair during the Yurchenko double pike (which she usually completes with ease), Biles pulled out of the women’s team final, citing the reason of safeguarding her mental health. It was one of the first times an athlete of her calibre made such a strong statement on setting their boundaries.
While broadly positive, the reactions to her withdrawal remain divided, with some saying that quitting reflects poor mental resilience; while others hails her courage and strength to prioritise her health as an inspiration.
Taking to social media, Biles tweeted, “the outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.” Her exit from the Tokyo Olympics, as well as the resulting opinions, are significant because it fuels the conversation of the place of mental health in the realm of competitive sport. Is it fair for athletes to continue being treated like commodities, a means for gaining national pride and prestige, or should we instead start valuing them as human beings who make mistakes? In the following paragraphs, we delve deeper into the issue of mental health in relation to sports and how it is being dealt with.
The mental health of Olympics athletes
The mental health problem among athletes has long been left unnoticed by the public. People are so used to the idea that athletes are “superhuman”. As such, the high expectations form both the audience and the athletes themselves put athletes’ mental health at stake. This has led to some specific mental health disorders, such as eating disorders, depression and even suicide.
Before Biles, many athletes had also voiced out their struggle against mental problems. For example, Michael Phelps, a swimmer with a record 23 gold medals, once mentioned that he contemplated suicide after the 2012 Olympics while wracked with depression.
Biles is not alone in suffering from mental health issues during the Tokyo Olympics. Skateboarder Nyjah Huston also opened up about his struggles. He was placed seventh in the street skateboarding tournament on 25 July this year. He shared in an Instagram post that the pressure of being an internationally renowned athlete “isn’t easy at times” and that he’s often “really hard” on himself when he does not win. Sprinter Allysom Felix is also learning to make mental health a “priority” and knowing when to seek help.
It is evident that mental health issues are highly prevalent among Olympians. In fact, these athletes are especially vulnerable due to the public and financial pressures and a lack of mental health resources.
How the Olympics deals with it
There is no doubt that the Olympics is proof for the physically well, but its grip on ensuring the mental health and stability of its athletes begs to differ. On the 30th of July, Biles, who had been expected to win six golds in Tokyo, took to Instagram, “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”
The Olympics’ blatant disregard for athletes’ mental health shows a clear lack of respect for the athletes as human beings, and instead reduces them to mere pawns in a cruel and relentless race to the top. Olympians are not superhuman beings exempt from the laws of physiology; mind and body cannot be mutually exclusive.
Underneath the international event’s shiny prestige, the Olympics has some issues it needs to settle. Certainly, before it can achieve its goal of uniting nations in world peace, it must first care for the mental health of its athletes. While more athletes opening up about their personal struggles is a big step in the right direction, the International Olympic Committee itself needs to do more as the governing body of the event. It can possibly start by raising awareness and bringing more attention to mental health issues.
At the same time, the cheering audiences around the world should also remember that every athlete they are watching is a human being who requires support and kindness just like any other person. The public should adopt an understanding attitude that encourages athletes at both their highest moments, and their lowest.
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- Guardian News and Media. (2021, August 1). Simone Biles on last olympic chance after withdrawal from Floor final. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2021/aug/01/simone-biles-gymnastics-floor-exercise-olympics-tokyo-2020-withdrawal.
- ‘OK not to be OK’: Mental health takes top role at Olympics. AP NEWS. (2021). Retrieved 11 August 2021, from https://apnews.com/article/2020-tokyo-olympics-swimming-gymnastics-sports-mental-health-0766e3e512f877254b11b1cf99710473.
- Orbey, E. (2021, July 27). The radical courage of Simone Biles’s exit from the Team USA Olympic Finals. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/sports/replay/the-radical-courage-of-simone-biless-exit-from-the-team-usa-olympic-finals.
- Leiker, E. (2021, August 3). Simone Biles at the OLYMPICS: Everything to know about Team Usa star at Tokyo Games. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/2021/07/21/get-know-simone-biles-olympics-stars-schedule-age-medal-count/8002480002/.