This is probably not going to be a popular post.
Over at the Olympics, Simone Biles has withdrawn from the gymnastics team event invoking mental issues and everybody is applauding her courage. I am confused. Far be it from me to minimize the importance of self-care. I have struggled with mental issues just as much as the next person (or more), and I do understand that, in her particular sport, lack of focus can lead to serious injuries. So it’s not that I don’t understand the gesture. What I grapple with is the attitude.
I’m not familiar with all the details. I’m not throwing stones. Still, I cannot help but wonder: has this become too convenient an excuse? A way for professional athletes and other relatively privileged individuals – who have shot to fame and fortune through cut-throat competition and who enjoy the perks that come with this lifestyle – to back out whenever things don’t quite go their way? Do they not have a psychologist on the team? Did team USA not swap the Olympic Village for a nice hotel to ensure perfect conditions for their gymnasts? Is that not supposed to give them some kind of edge over the other poor saps?
After all, the Olympics are just as much about team spirit, self-sacrifice and representing one’s country as they are about individual success. My grandfather was a professional footballer who played for the Romanian national team in the 1930s. He played World Cup qualifiers and even the final tournament itself. During one of the really important matches, he was viciously fouled, but continued playing with a broken rib all the way to the end to help out his team. And he is not the only example. We look up to such people not just because they are skilled with the ball or can do elaborate tricks with their bodies. We look up to them for their strength of character as well. We are inspired by their dedication and grit, by their sense of responsibility and loyalty, by their capacity to handle adversity and to bounce back stronger when it really matters.
Or at least, we used to be.
Lately, there seems to be a lot of cherry-picking going on among professional athletes. Naomi Osaka can’t handle one more Roland Garros press conference, but apparently has no problem with the psychological pressures of carrying the Olympic torch and having the eyes of the entire planet on her while she’s doing it. Serena Williams explains away her questionable behavior on court as a feminist stance. A couple of Romanian professional tennis players invoke injuries to avoid going to the Olympics altogether. Are we, as a society, giving people license to self-victimize too easily? And is the mental health argument becoming a little too self-serving?
Are we too spoiled? Not resilient enough? Mentally depleted? Is it a question of individualism vs. collectivism?
What about those Olympians who have been through wars and famine and other types of deadly violence? What about those for whom the spartan conditions in the Olympic Village are an incredible improvement over what they have back home? What about Abebe Bikila, who won a marathon barefoot? How can these people keep it together? How come they are “mentally there”?
Simone Biles is an experienced gymnast with an impressive track record (and yes, she has also been subjected to terrible abuse, but is, unfortunately, not the only one in that position). She has been in gruelling competitions before and she chose to participate in this one as well. She has been called the greatest of all times. When she quits her team instead of leading it to victory, is she just being human, admitting her limitations, taking time to heal, and giving somebody else a shot at glory – or is she shirking her responsibilities and putting the onus on her less experienced teammates, who now have to step in and shoulder even more of the pressure?
On the other hand, former USSR gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, now 42 years old, is participating in her 8th Olympics. She kept training and competing professionally even as her son was battling leukaemia. And Larisa Iordache, a top Romanian gymnast, ended her beam routine in tears with a painful foot injury a couple of days ago, yet continues to bite the bullet, determined to recover, train and compete in Tokyo – both for herself and for the people back home. And this despite the recent death of her mother (one month before the Olympics!), the weighty expectations of 19 million conationals, and the daunting legacy every Romanian gymnast at the Olympic Games will forever be judged against: Nadia Comaneci’s seven perfect 10’s in Montreal in 1976.
(You might also like: https://theconversation.com/the-infantilization-of-western-culture-99556)
#olympics #gymnastics #tennis #mentalhealth #society