One of the most pivotal and — tragically — controversial topics surrounding the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo was that of mental health. Two especially prominent figures in their respective sports, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, made headlines as they dropped out of the running for their sports. Critics were quick to denounce or even ridicule them for failing to perform up to expectations, and while the world pulled together to defend the athletes, there was still a vocal minority that continued to shame them for putting their mental health above their duty as athletes. And when Sha’Carri Richardson finished last in the Prefontaine Classic 100 Meter after being disqualified from the Olympics for testing positive for marijuana — a substance she claimed to have used to deal with the death of her biological mother — internet discourse boiled with snide comments about her attitude and talent. One such outspoken critic was sports radio host Ben Maller, who called Biles “selfish” and “the biggest quitter in sports” on his “The Ben Maller Show.”
As I watched the sports events of the summer unfold, I was struck by the common theme that unified these female athletes. Although they each had unique circumstances surrounding their withdrawal or disqualification from the Olympics, they were all prominent public figures with lofty, excited expectations from their large followings. And, in the painful context of their mental health, they each struggled with hateful commentary that took the women’s performances for granted and refused to regard them as actual human beings. At the end of the day, the core of the online hatred seemed to stem from a certain entitlement the public felt toward the athletes’ performance: The athletes “owed” them something in return for the support they had received over the years. This kind of reasoning, I fear, detracts from and mutates the original spirit of sports.
Games and sports have long been an integral part of society, providing an outlet for individuals to hone their bodies and skills, and test their limits while providing a communal space of entertainment for spectators. The entertainment — that obligation to please the crowds — should never come at the expense of the athlete’s health, whether it be physical or mental. On the individual level, the top priority is almost never to please others, but instead to improve, challenge and train one’s own body and mind. It shouldn’t spark public and widespread rage for an athlete to confess about their struggles with mental health; it should foster thoughtful, sympathetic conversation about public spotlights and the pressure it can impose on athletes, even as that spotlight opens up avenues for huge numbers of fans. And those conversations have certainly been started. More and more people have begun to step forward to offer their support for these women. These conversations need to be candid, open and understanding if we ever want to welcome an age of athletics where fans are true supporters who will stick through the thick and thin, and athletes can compete at peak condition with their minds at rest.
And maybe these conversations can be applied to us as well — college students just now starting a new semester after a year of online classes and social distancing. Our situation — weekly problem sets, midterms, essays, extracurriculars — is generally more mundane than the average Olympian’s, and we don’t have billions of people watching our every move, ready to cheer or boo or criticize. But we each have our own world of problems, our own set of expectations we have to meet, and all of this has an impact on our mental health.
I feel as if I am also, somehow, an athlete in life. I have the internal motivation to educate myself and become someone I could respect, but there is also the external motivation of meeting societal or even familial expectations. Recently, too many of my decisions have been impacted primarily by those external motivations. For me, the critical audience was in my head, hounding my choices and pressuring me to perform. But if there’s anything I learned from the Summer 2021 Olympics, it was that it’s okay to treasure and prioritize yourself, to reflect on the balance between your internal and external motivations.
Ultimately, without a strong internal motivation focused on the self, it can become too difficult to continue at all when external motivation betrays you. Sometimes continuing on your current path can hurt you and keep you from embarking on future journeys, and that’s when you need to take a step back and breathe.