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Olympic Medals or Mental Health?

Image Courtesy of Atticus Parker, Tideline

By TESS REMPEL

Naomi Osaka, the highest paid female athlete, and Simone Biles, widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, have been open about mental health struggles after experiencing hardship at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In a vocation characterized by mental strength, the athletes’ public departures have sparked a nationwide debate. 

According to the Journal of Athletic Training, sport specialization – a young athlete participating in one sport year-round, often for the potential of financial compensation – has a number of effects on wellbeing, including increased anxiety, social isolation, sleep deprivation, and burnout. Burnout in sports is described as a “response to chronic stress in which a young athlete eases to participate in a previously enjoyable activity,” leading to emotional and physical exhaustion, decreased sense of accomplishment, and sport devaluation. 

“Athletes are humans…perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny…In any other line of work, you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here 

and there, so long as it’s not habitual,” Osaka said.

In recent months, many elite athletes, a lot of them being young Black women, have openly prioritized their mental health over professional success. This may be a consequence of the expectations for Black female athletes being evidently taxing and cruel, with Serena Williams and Sha’Carri Richardson being publicly subjected to body-shaming, racism, and unfair punishment from sporting officials. According to the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work, only one in three African Americans with mental health issues receive appropriate mental health treatment, along with LatinX and Indigenous Americans being more likely to lack health insurance that could aid mental health crises.

Following a pandemic that reported 62.9 percent of 18 to 24 year olds experiencing anxiety or depression in 2020, the global crisis has only intensified for athletes. Many elite athletes had to deal with the uncertainty and disappointment following the postponement of the Olympics, as well as another year of training. The Olympic Games is a breeding ground for athletes’ wellbeing to be threatened, as attempting perfection in sports, in addition to excessive time commitments, demanding expectations, and negative evaluation, make athletes more vulnerable to burnout.

“We’re not just entertainment,” Biles said. “We’re humans and there are things going on behind the scenes that we’re also trying to juggle with.”

The United States Olympic Committee has long failed to protect athletes mentally and physically. USA Gymnastics Doctor Larry Nassar, who sexually abused hundreds of female gymnasts as the team doctor – including Biles – is regarded as the biggest sexual abuse scandal in sports history.

“If there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just pushed it to the side…they have to do something. Gymnastics wasn’t the only thing that I was supposed to come back for,” Biles said.

Many Americans make intense sacrifices to maintain their profession, citing quotes like “No pain, no gain” and “Grin and bear it.” This mentality, while helpful for some, may indirectly label mental health struggles as an invalid reason to refrain from vocational responsibilities. This is exacerbated by a lack of national policy change to provide mental health care, which extends to athletes, who risk their health and sometimes their lives under undying pressure and scrutiny.

“Michael Phelps told me that by speaking up, I may have saved a life,” Osaka said. “If that’s true, then it was all worth it.”

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