Top-League Sports and the Age of Wellbeing

Simone Biles is the second sports star this year to pull out of a major competition: the Olympic games, no less. As the reason behind these shocking decisions, they both opened up about struggling with mental health. Could this be a new era where a top career is not worth the price of suffering?

by Margherita Concina | 28 Jul, 2021
Sports and Mental Health

It started with Naomi Osaka.

Back in May, the young tennis champion shocked the world by pulling out of the prestigious Roland-Garros tournament. Her first offense was withdrawing from the routine press conferences, after being hounded with questions about her victory over Serena Williams. This earned her a $15,000 fine and a wave of international backlash. It got so bad that Osaka decided to retreat from the tournament altogether, giving herself time and space to regain her balance

In the strange, emotionally charged year 2021, she was the first high-profile athlete to say: Enough.

But the discourse on mental health in sports had been brewing long before her. Its top leagues live in our collective consciousness as a gathering of gods – they don’t call it the Olympics for nothing. At their peak, sports push bodies to the brink of invulnerability. And when everyone is so good at what they do, the only way to judge their performances is to scrutinize minor flaws, or to marvel at a sudden fall or lapse in technique. 

These spaces are antithetical to vulnerability. But in recent years, mental health has pushed its way into the conversation, demanding we take a long, hard look at the price of success. In 2018, swimming phenomenon Michael Phelps opened up about his struggles with depression, disclosing that he had contemplated suicide after the London 2012 Olympics. He had won four gold medals and two silvers that year. And in his own words, he felt “the weight of the world” on his shoulders.

Today, Phelps stands in solidarity with Osaka and with Simone Biles, the latest star to step down from competition to prioritize her wellbeing. The 24-year-old US gymnast is considered a prodigy in her discipline, a titan in the league of Serena Williams or LeBron James. But throughout her stellar career, Biles has been processing intense personal turmoil. As the pressure of her fame mounted up, the U.S. Gymnastics team started to feel less and less like a safe space. In 2018, she and dozens of her teammates were revealed to have been sexually assaulted by the U.S. national team doctor, Larry Nassar. 

And now, in the midst of an Olympic tournament gnawed to the bone by COVID anxiety, Biles watched herself struggle to meet her usual standards. It was time to “take a step back”. Just before the final round, the young athlete decided to exit the competition, with the full support of her coach and team. After all, she had done it for them: “I felt I robbed them of a couple of tenths when they could have been higher in the rankings,” she explained. As well as choosing her mental health, Biles felt a responsibility to show up for her colleagues at her best, or not at all.

The world’s highest achievers are climbing down from Mount Olympus: That means something. We no longer want our success to cloud our self-respect, our emotional balance, our bonds with friends and colleagues. In fact, we’re well on our way to redefining the concept altogether. 

Sports remain a platform for records to be broken, boundaries to be constantly pushed: The will to defy gravity will always be aspirational. But its protagonists are bringing about a new model of ambition, one that doesn’t shy away from vulnerability and self-reflection. We are so often told that success is the highest expression of our self-worth. Now, professionals at the top of their game are turning that myth on its head: They are choosing their self-worth over success. This is a radical value change. Let it trickle from our most admired role models down to all of our lives.



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