Tag Archives: competition

The mental health argument


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Over at the Olympics, Simone Biles has withdrawn from the gymnastics team event invoking “mental issues” and everybody is applauding her “courage”.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, 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. Here is an amazing and hard-working young woman who experienced a low moment and did the rational thing (seeing as her performance was a liability to the team and a risk to her health). Good for her. What I grapple with is the attitude. The glorification.

I’m not familiar with all the details. I’m not throwing stones. Still, I cannot help but wonder: is the mental health mantra becoming 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 at other times fully enjoy the perks that come with this lifestyle – to back out whenever things don’t quite go their way or when they feel they are not equal to the challenge? 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 in the West too spoiled? Too stressed? 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. The history of abuse by the team doctor is truly dreadful, but it did not impair her performance at the previous Olympics, when the scandal was at its peak. (Sadly, she is not the only athlete on an Olympic team to have suffered various types of abuse, especially in gymnastics…) 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, a reputation she embraced and seemed to revel in. She is a role model. When she pulls out instead of leading her team to victory, is she simply 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 unexpectedly and shoulder even more of the pressure? Is she a victim? Is she a hero? Both? Neither?

I guess only time will tell.

Meanwhile, former USSR gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, now 46 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)

P.S. I am certainly NOT suggesting that athletes have a sacred duty to entertain us or to fight for their country at the cost of their health or wellbeing. There are situations when quitting is perfectly justified – the smart option, the only option. What I have a problem with is the generalized celebrations around it. The Olympics is not an all-expenses-paid wellness trip. How we perceive things is culturally contingent. Perhaps so is our perception of what constitutes true greatness and how best to deal with difficult choices. But what we choose to celebrate now has an impact on social and cultural norms going forward. It models future behavior. I am simply questioning whether all this talk of mental health (in the context of superstars who are far from powerless and who, by their own admission, “freak out in a high-stress situation”) does more to destigmatize it, or to trivialize it. And whether giving ourselves permission to be fragile or easily hurt and offended actually makes us become more fragile and more easily offended. We already know from Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s experiments that giving people permission to oppress will turn them into real oppressors…

#olympics #gymnastics #tennis #mentalhealth #society

Spirituality, modernity and Brownian motion


Just a thought…

So many of us feel depleted, drained, stressed out. Our beings flogged from within, our lives – our biggest gift – turned into empty chases. Pursuing a zillion things that we can grab and touch and display, but which aren’t real. We live in societies that prioritize task efficiency, competition, action, and the accumulation of stuff over family, over time with friends, music, celebration, inner peace, or the contemplation of beauty.

The spiritual, once a central component of daily life – that umbilical cord to the divine – has been all but banished, relegated to the periphery, exiled to the realm of the exotic, the archaic, and the ‘oppressive’. The daily recalibration of prayer has fallen from grace and with it we have fallen – literally – from grace. From the grace of communing with the universe and with each other, the grace of transcending and accessing our higher purpose. From peace and vitality.

We bet everything on the card of desire, sleepwalking through life in a state of sterile and destructive arousal, as if remote-controlled via our most basic reflexes and deprived of the light of transfiguration. Do not be fooled that we no longer worship. We do. We worship the idol of self – the crumbling ‘natural man’ – while cutting ourselves off from our spiritual potential – the human person inhabited by holiness, true love, generosity, and joy. 

The unhappiness that brings. 

And how freely available the healing can be.

Old woman praying in the fields at midday, as church bells toll in Rebrisoara, Romania
(Source: infobistrita.ro. Photo taken by Marian Ros in Rebrisoara)

P.S. For more (and better!) on our aimless restlessness, our addiction to illusion and distraction, and our loathing of Eden – take a listen here: https://entitledopinions.stanford.edu/fatidic-power-literature. An episode I stumbled upon today – no kidding – after writing this blog. There are very few coincidences in life.



Venus – that ancient

goddess of carnal desire – 

has a poisonous atmosphere that might,

just might,

hold the life of a microbe.


the microbes here on Earth

began to show signs

of restlessness.

fighting each other for supremacy

and claiming poison

as their territory.

Copyright A. Sepi 2020. All rights reserved