The notion of the superhuman Olympian is a dangerous one which seems to be finally being put to bed. Even before Tokyo, Naomi Osaka pulled out of Tennis’ French Open amid a mountain of pathetic media backlash against a twenty-three year old young woman, before going on to light the Olympic flame and officially kick the games off.
Osaka has spoken regarding her own mental health to the press more than they deserved, cast as an “outsider” in both her birth country of Japan and in her current home of the US alike, for being an “Asian-American”.
While Tokyo marks Osaka’s first Olympics appearance, mental health has been addressed by Olympic veterans as well. American Freestyle Skier Nick Goepper reported contemplating suicide after the Sochi Winter Olympics, in which he won a bronze medal. One of the greatest Olympians of all time, America’s Michael Phelps, attests to “falling into a state of depression” after every Olympics, including contemplating suicide after London 2012. Dutch cyclist Tom Dumoulin took time away from the sport to assess his relationship with it, before coming back to win silver in the Men’s Individual Time Trial at Tokyo.
Fellow American swimmer Allison Schmitt won three gold medals in London in 2012, yet fell into an extended battle with depression upon returning home after the games. She has since returned to both the Rio and Tokyo Olympics (medaling in both), completed a degree in psychology and now speaks as an authority on mental health in athletes at elite level, from personal experience.
Speaking about her return from London and the bouts of depression that accompanied it, Schmitt said: “I wasn’t necessarily ready to face the world and reality. I wasn’t prepared for people knowing me. Random people on the street coming up to me, whispering about me, knowing that I was an Olympic gold medallist.”
Mental health has been thrust into the spotlight once again at Tokyo, with arguably the greatest gymnast in history, Simone Biles, withdrawing from competition and in doing so attracting criticism from the very worst of “personalities” – again aimed at a young woman with an incredible weight on her shoulders, who has already survived sexual abuse as a teenager to become an Olympic legend and role model for countless young women.
Exacerbating the problem of the perceived ungratefulness of Olympians who, you know, look after themselves, is the notion that Olympians aren’t like us. They’re not normal people, and therefore these sorts of problems shouldn’t affect them – this point investigated by a peer-reviewed article which states “…elite athletes are not normal so diﬀerent criteria must be applied.”
This is a notion which is at best foolish, and at worst dangerous and damaging. Olympians are of course normal people – Allison Schmitt would only train with Michael Phelps during summers, while she was between semesters at university. Elsewhere in Tokyo, Brazilian sprinter Rosangela Santos worked as an Uber driver in the US while preparing to compete, while Venezuelan fencer Ruben Limardo doubled as a food delivery cyclist in Poland while in training.
Olympians are people with degrees to study for, day jobs to clock in to, school runs to make, and bills to pay – the eyes of the sporting world briefly flicking across them doesn’t exempt them from their own mental health struggles, nor speaking out about them.