Olympians have always been people I’ve idolised. This has been enforced by the media who typically place Olympians on pedestals and hail them indestructible superheroes. If you look up Olympian in the thesaurus, it suggests words like ethereal, immortal, otherworldly and supernatural. However, the story that dominated Tokyo was not a narrative based on“success at all costs” but one which prioritised wellbeing and the power of vulnerability.
Media are often guilty of treating athletes like they are programmed to win, and this is completely unrealistic. At the Olympics, the best of the best compete and everyone has the potential to win. If the result is a forgone conclusion, there would be no point in the competition happening as, without jeopardy, there is no competition. It is easy for the media to cross the line from showing support to pressuring athletes to achieve. For example, hailing someone the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) puts an unfathomable amount of pressure on an athlete to live up to that status. No one can win forever and it’s stupid to believe they can.
However, the story that dominated Tokyo was not about success at all costs but, rather, how this attitude can impact the wellbeing and mental health of athletes. One athlete that consistently carries the weight of the world media is Simone Biles. Prior to Tokyo, it was expected that Biles would dominate competition and be the first to compete a new vault, truly cementing her GOAT status (this would be the fifth trick named after her). The whole world was watching, and I cannot imagine what that feels like.
Competing at this level brings with it the privilege (and pressure) of representing a country. However, when reading media reports it often feels like the success of an athlete belongs to their country, whilst the failure of an athlete belongs to them alone. I do sometimes wonder whether elite athletes are able to enjoy their own success, or whether they are just relieved they didn’t “let anyone down”. An athlete should be able to compete for themselves and I’m not sure that is always the case.
If we consider Simone Biles, her story is remarkable. Biles dealt with childhood poverty before entering the foster system, she has had ADHD since childhood and was a victim of sexual abuse by Team USA doctor, Larry Nassar – a trauma that Biles says left her depressed. Simone Biles overcame all obstacles to become ‘the world’s greatest gymnast’. I can only imagine that this comes with a lot of pressure because Simone can no longer compete for herself or simply just America, she is also representing black America, foster children and children who have grown up in poverty. The US media outlet ‘Today’ even published the headline – ‘Simone Biles returning to Olympics to be a voice for abuse survivors’. This is too much for anyone to have to carry. Simone Biles has achieved incredible things and is an amazing role model to millions of people, but the way the media selects their poster person adds so much pressure to perform. After all: a white, middle-class athlete that grew up in a nuclear family would not be made to represent white middle class people everywhere.
So, when Simone pulled out of the team event at the Tokyo Olympics it shouldn’t have been such a big deal, but it became a huge talking point. Following the qualifying event, Simone Biles wrote an Instagram post saying that she felt ‘the weight of the world on [her] shoulders sometimes’. This, alone, is a very important message for young athletes to know as even the world’s top athletes can feel the pressure and have off-days – everyone is human. And, since she pulled out, Biles has been praised for prioritising her wellbeing over success.
Obviously, not everyone agreed and even I have to say my eyebrows were raised slightly when in her exit interview, she said that pulling out ‘showed how strong of a competitor’ she is, but when watching the interview back, I think she was trying to defend herself against the media questioning she anticipated to follow, and I respect that. Later, Simone explained that she was suffering from the twisties which makes gymnasts feel disorientated in the air. This is very dangerous, and if Simone had continued competing whilst second-guessing herself, she would have put herself at risk of having a potentially career-ending accident – Simone was right to walk away, and I very much doubt her decision would have been questioned if she had pulled out with a physical injury.
This was the beginning of a Tokyo Olympics narrative focused on mental health and wellbeing. The reaction from other athletes was overwhelmingly positive and many added to the conversation by talking about their own mental health experiences – GB cyclist Callum Skinner, US weightlifter Mattie Rogers and GB diver Jack Laugher, just to mention a few. Having the light shone on mental health by people that the media often portray as indestructible has been really powerful. I do fear that this will be negatively spun though, creating an association of mental health with failure and quitting, but I hope the Tokyo Olympics will remain an important and empowering story to young people who will be able to look up to these athletes as human beings, rather than seeing them as unrelatable superheroes. Struggling mentally does not make you weak – it makes you human.
Eventually, when Simone felt able to return, she won the bronze medal on beam. She was able to compete on her own terms without expectation. She did this for herself and, in a way, I imagine she is prouder of that bronze medal than of some of her golds – because it belongs to her and her alone. I’m very hopeful that the legacy of the Tokyo Olympics and Simone Biles will live on. In her words: “At the end of the day, my mental and physical health is better than any medal.”
This conversation needs to continue.
Rebecca Dawson is a second-year Geography student at the University of Leicester. She is vice captain at UOL Tennis and is interested in mental health, popular culture and current affairs.