The Tokyo summer Olympics were different in many ways. Set against the backdrop of a largely empty stadium with masked ceremonies, the impact of the pandemic remained fully in sight over more than two weeks of athletic feats. Athletes competed under unique circumstances dictated by public health and safety guidelines. As it has for so many of us, the pandemic tested Olympians in a unique way over the course of competitions. These challenges were on clear display throughout the games and the broadcasting surrounding the events.
However, other, less commonly publicized challenges also found their way to the spotlight this Olympic season – particularly, the subject of mental health. Multiple athletes came forward over the course of competition to voice their own mental health struggles and to shed light on the tangible impact these struggles have on their day-to-day lives and athletic performance.
Naomi Osaka entered the Tokyo Olympics shortly after disclosing her personal challenges with anxiety and depression. Prior to the Olympics, Osaka took a stand for her mental health and self-care by choosing not to participate in a post-game press conference; she was steeply fined as a result. As Osaka pointed out in the weeks leading up to the Olympic games, this type of punitive response is wrong. It is okay to not be okay. It is okay to talk about not feeling okay. And it is not okay to be punished for taking care of your mental health.
After an early oust from the Olympic tennis tournaments, Osaka noted that the pressure she felt leading up to and during the Olympic games contributed to her performance. In the history of these widely broadcast athletic events, we don’t often witness athletes voicing the negative impact of anxiety and pressure upon their performance. It is a breath of fresh air to witness an elite athlete sharing their humanity and these all-too-common challenges. Even Olympians struggle.
Simone Biles offered another, highly visible example of what it means to prioritize one’s mental health. After an uncharacteristic mistake on the vault, Biles took a step back and withdrew from the all-around team competition. She publicly noted that the pressure of the Olympics had contributed to her mental state, and her mental state was a key factor in her performance. The greatest, most decorated, most renowned gymnast of all time admitted that yes, she too is human. Prioritizing mental wellness over competitive success takes vulnerability, courage and wisdom in all scenarios. Doing so in the heat of the international spotlight takes genuine leadership.
Prior to the Tokyo games, mental health rarely took a spotlight in the Olympic arena. Elite athletes are often expected to perform and to push through obstacles, pain and emotions to win. While a certain amount of perseverance, fortitude and resilience is undoubtedly essential to achieving athletic feats, nobody should place those feats above their mental health and wellness. Osaka and Biles, through their vulnerability and openness on their mental health struggles, shed new light this year on the humanity of seemingly superhuman athletes. The examples set by these strong and resilient women do more than expose the humanity of Olympians. Their examples reinforce the validity of mental health challenges within all of us.
We applaud those who leverage their public platforms and influence to amplify all of our voices. However, those of us with less influence and fame have just as much value to add to the conversation. Everyone, regardless of age, socioeconomics, gender or race, has experience with mental health issues – either directly or through a loved one. When it feels safe, share your experiences. Draw issues like anxiety and depression out of the shadows and into the light. Though none of us are obligated to disclose our personal histories, when we feel comfortable sharing our experiences, we normalize the unseen and the unspoken. We create safety. We create space for compassion, for hope and for healing. All of us – Olympic athletes and “mere mortals” alike ;) – have the power to make a difference.