I’m proud of Simone Biles. I’m proud of Naomi Osaka. I’m proud of anyone who prioritizes their mental health.
While we haven’t fully embraced this mindset — as demonstrated by the snarky, nasty comments from detractors — we are moving in the right direction of removing the stigma of mental health and realizing how important it is to our overall well-being.
Before the pandemic, the stigma surrounding mental health was slowly evaporating, but COVID-19 sped up the process. Talking about mental health became part of regular conversations. Health officials admonished us to check in on our loved ones. Memes on social media jokingly (but seriously) told introverts to check on their extrovert friends during the shelter-in-place orders. So many of us dealt with death and sadness alone.
Again, we’re not all the way there, but we are much further than we were in 2019. It’s evidenced by the conversations we now have regarding self-care, and by the actions of Biles and Osaka.
Osaka pulled out of the French Open in May, citing the need for self-care. Biles’ decision to first drop out of the team finals and then individual all-around competition left Olympics enthusiasts stunned. Many were anticipating the return of Biles to defend her gold medals and to watch her gravity-defying moves. She does moves so difficult she’s the only who tries them let alone does those moves successfully. She has four skills named after her — and there could’ve been a fifth named after her at the Tokyo Olympics. Talk about pressure!
And that’s what we’re talking about here. These young ladies — and they are young, Biles, 24 and Osaka, 23 — have a tremendous amount of pressure to live up to. They have the pressure they put on themselves to maintain their elite athlete status as well as the pressure of an entire country — or in Osaka’s case, three — on their shoulders. The weight they bear is one most of us will never know.
It’s particularly interesting that the main ones vilifying Osaka and Biles are white men — often older white men. White men, who can’t do even a fraction of what these women do. (One even has a commercial about how he couldn’t walk or sit for more than 10 minutes “without horrible pain.”) These white men likely prioritize their mental health but begrudge Black women from doing so. These white men see no value in either of these women. They’re property. Biles is only here to bring fame, recognition and medals to the U.S. They’re disposable; discarded like yesterday’s trash.
The attacks on Biles are fresh and especially venomous. She’s been called weak, a sociopath and selfish. She’s been compared to other elite athletes and how they toughed it out and competed. We don’t know how they dealt with stress, anxiety or depression that often comes with being an elite athlete. Just because one competes doesn’t mean one is dealing with internal issues in a healthy way. We know Biles dealt with sexual abuse at the hands of USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. She’s the only sexual abuse survivor from the 2016 team to come back to the Olympics, and she’s still dealing with an organization that allowed the abuse to happen for years.
To make it to elite athlete status, you must love the sport. But that love comes with a price. The sport often becomes the athlete’s identity. Ask Missy Franklin. She didn’t know what to do after she stopped swimming. Gold medal winner Lindsey Vonn battled depression that left her unable to get out of bed some days. Michael Phelps dealt with depression, substance abuse and a DUI. According to a study published in British Journal of Sports Medicine, 34% of active elite athletes and 26% of retired elite athletes dealt with anxiety and depression.
We place a premium on sports when we should place a premium on lives. You’re an elite athlete but for a short time in your life. There’s still a lot of living left to do after the last game is played.
Whether they compete or not, life will go on. These athletes are not ours. Biles and Osaka are not ours. White men, their bodies don’t belong to you. They owe us nothing.