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‘Higher, faster, stronger’, but at what cost?

CW: discussions of sexual assault and paedophilia

The Olympics have always been associated with the moments and the memories. There are always shocks and surprises; Britain doing better in the BMX than the rowing, 14-year-old Quan Hongchan scoring 3 rounds of perfect 10s in the Women’s 10m platform, Jason Kenny just completely disregarding convention to turn the Keirin into a 70km/h sprint … Gosh, I could go on forever!

Yet, somehow, all these ‘surprises’, all these ‘shocks’, are all kind of predictable: China has always been the one to beat in the diving, Jason Kenny is a machine in the velodrome, the rowing people were racing completely new boats with new crews. Even Charlotte Worthington, the hero-out-of-nowhere in the BMX Park, didn’t really come out of nowhere: she was European Champion, British Champion, and a World Final Medallist, on a good day she was certainly going to the podium.

The biggest surprise of Tokyo was shocking precisely because nobody saw it coming. Simone Biles’ sudden withdrawal midway through the team final sent out shockwaves the size of tsunamis. Many an ‘Oh my god’ left our lips, the commentators struggled to comment amidst the confusion[1]. Was it her ankle? Was it her wrist? Was she stropping because her vault was below her usual insane standard? What could possibly have happened to rattle the self-confessed gymnastics GOAT (greatest-of-all-time)?

Even when US Gymnastics released an explanation it was met with instant scepticism. There was a Twitter-led tendency to question the validity of citing ‘mental health concerns’ as a reason for withdrawing from the competitive final. It is easy to counter Biles’ decision with this well-rehearsed statistic: 1 in 4 adults in the US live with a diagnosable mental health condition. Now, that doesn’t account for all the millions of people in the US who might experience mental struggles that, while not clinical or acute enough for a formal diagnosis, are no less debilitating and no less valid. So yes, by rules of simple probability, there will be dozens of athletes in the US team who might find mental health having an impact on their performance. Isn’t the fact that nobody, before Biles, had withdrawn from an Olympic stage for poor ‘mental health’ testament to how athletes have just learnt to manage these conditions?

Let’s slow the speed of that conclusion for just a moment. Just because Biles was the first to make her struggles public, doesn’t mean she was the first to experience mental difficulty. It is not uncommon for an athlete to ‘choke’ on the world stage. In fact, it’s so common that you can read many a truly ‘fascinating’ (and somewhat insulting) article on the ‘worst superstar chokes in history’. You can also read an equal number of self-help books teaching you how to avoid choking under pressure.

But that’s just it! The issue isn’t being solved; society is just conditioning its athletes to (A) be embarrassed when they aren’t immune to a situation that is obviously going to be stressful and (B) to think that that the only way they are going to overcome ordinary human stresses is to hide them deep, deep down somewhere and hope they don’t somehow find their way out. Basically, to struggle mentally is to be scarred with shame.

Naturally, this is not an expectation that extends to physical injury. When Katarina Johnson Thompson tragically withdrew midway through the Heptathlon due to an Achilles injury; withdrew because she had ‘pushed until [she] couldn’t push anymore’; withdrew because of a diagnosable physical injury she was a ‘hero’ where Biles – despite charting an Olympic trajectory scarily similar to the British heptathlete – was a ‘national embarrassment’.

Let’s be real, sporting organisations have been asleep to athletes’ mental health concerns for far too long and need to wake the hell up. Many physically injured Olympians this year got special compensation for their physios to accompany them to the games, to quarantine in their apartment so that they could get the best possible injury care. So why, if intense mental pressure is a guaranteed experience for all athletes, do we see no therapists in the Olympic village? I don’t know the real answer to this, maybe it’s something to do with extra-cautious COVID-precautions; but something tells me that’s not the case …

Now, I love the Olympics as much as the next person. I really do, but gosh I wouldn’t want to be an Olympian, no way. Why? I think that there is a lot in the Olympics that is broken and as a result, the function is failing to provide for its athletes. Why is it that so many world-class athletes face continued disappointment on the Olympic stage?

In 2018, Conversation released an insightful article about why we see athletes consistently underperforming at the Winter Olympics, citing things like media pressure, a change of routine and social distraction as uniquely ‘Olympic’ reasons for bad performance. All these issues naturally extend to the Summer Olympics; but, to me, the flaws cut deeper. Just look at the motto:

HIGHER

An Olympic athlete is more than just an athlete: they are a celebrity. Olympic selection throws them up ‘higher’ than any of their ordinary competition. Their success is rewarded with brand deals, Vogue covers, in some nations with 6 figure salaries and houses. What happens when they fail? Well, the brand deals just go to someone else, and we find our athletes falling lower and lower on this invisible pecking order.

The 2020 Olympics were no different, if anything they were worse. In the UK, the BBC took full advantage of lockdown sofa-TV-binging and released a series of documentaries predicting the success of their athletes. British rower Helen Glover was making ‘the mother of all comebacks’, the language in the title subtly positing her as a figurehead for maternity; if Glover succeeds, she proves the strength and resilience of all mothers. If she fails, what message is sent?  Every interview after her 4th place finish focussed on the difficulty of juggling family and training; suggesting, with absolutely no subtlety, that her ‘failure’ was down to her taking time out for toddlers. She became a mum first, an Olympian second. We remember her gushing over her babies on the BBC more than we remember her making history for British Rowing. Dina Asher-Smith raced ‘for more’ and Jade Jones fought ‘for gold’ making it clear that their success and worth would be measured against the medals (ideally the gold for Jones) they won in Tokyo. The problem with these documentaries is that they set an impossible precedent. It is like these athletes have already won the gold before they even touched down. So what happens if they don’t? Well, we cannot help but feel disappointed and they cannot help but feel they let their nation down. It really is no surprise that Jade Jones told the BBC that ‘[she] felt too much pressure’ coming into Tokyo.

You might say that this pressure isn’t ‘unfair’ – after all, they are gold-garbed athletes. The logic is simple, right? 5 years ago, pre-pandemic, they won a gold medal … So they must be on track for the same one this year. Well, how much have you changed in 5 years? How much has the world and all the people around you changed in 5 years? Especially these corona-tainted 5 years …

FASTER

Doing it once is never enough for an Olympic athlete. At each Games they enter, they must be ‘faster’ (whether physically or metaphorically) than they were before, even when this speed is potentially impossible to achieve. We saw this with Usain Bolt in Rio. If you take a look at his 200m line-crossing victory face with no context, well, you might find yourself thinking he had lost spectacularly. You would be hard-pressed to find a more convincing portrayal of crushing anguish.

But, in a way, Bolt had lost. He wasn’t ‘faster’ than his 2009 world record. His post-race interview was tragic as he described how his ‘legs’ were telling him he was never going to ‘go any faster’ despite him relentlessly pushing himself in training to be the ‘best’ he could possibly be. So no matter how hard he tried and trained, he was never going to be ‘faster’. Despite the sheer success of Bolt’s 2016 Olympics, his experience ended up being tainted with a sense of failure and disappointment, disappointment he couldn’t have done anything to avoid.

But, at the end of the day, Bolt still won. What happens to the athletes who don’t defend their titles? What happens to those who don’t even qualify? Well, before Sir Mo Farah even had time to leave the arena after failing to qualify for the 10,000m people were asking about his retirement plans. Just like that we see a running legend being written off as an old, past-his-time failure, all because of a single race and the Olympian expectation to always be ‘faster’.

Farah’s response to this endless ream of retirement comments did not suggest any fear of failure and so we are reminded that an athlete’s power and impact extends beyond the Olympic stage,

‘I know I can do it and I will not end it like this. I want to end it with something massive. Although obviously nothing is going to be as big as the Olympics, I want to come back out and do something great, that’s what makes us champions. You have to continue; you have to go over many hurdles and you have to push on. At the moment, it’s tough, but I will continue. You’ll see that smile again.’

STRONGER

I’m glad that Simone Biles was honest about her mental health struggles because it forced us to open our eyes. As she said herself, the USA gymnasts are ‘human’ first and ‘entertainment’, ‘athletes’ second. They are not machines, they are not strategies, they are people. As a result, they have the same strength as every other human being, they are not unrealistically ‘stronger’. Yes, Olympians are strong, but so is everyone, and endless resolute mental strength should not be an expectation.

Simply labelling her as ‘stronger’ also conveniently allows for the glossing over the extent of her experience under the paedophilic doctor Larry Nassar:

‘if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side’

Here we see Simone Biles taking it upon herself to be the ‘example’, buying into that dialogue that she cannot let Nassar win, she must prove that her love for the sport, her passion, her talent, is ‘stronger’ than his actions. If she breaks this show of strength, what does it mean? To some, it would show that she is damaged, that she hadn’t survived, that Nassar succeeded. The pressure to maintain unwavering strength is a lot for anybody to take on, let alone a 24-year-old survivor of paedophilia and sexual assault. It is an even bigger ask to bring this same strength to the Olympic stage.

As her fellow Nassar-victim Rachael Denhollander has stated, the Olympics is a ‘huge trigger’ for many survivors,

‘It brings back how hard it was to speak up, to verbalize it all for the first time. This is when it all came out. And the body does keep score. It remembers those times of year and those anniversaries. I can’t even imagine trying to function.’

Given Simone Biles’ comments that the ‘twisties’– an experience which could be equated to your mind feeling disconnected from your body – was a serious factor in her withdrawal, it is impossible not to see some connection with her status as a ‘survivor’. Yes, we will never know how much of a factor it played, we shouldn’t know, it’s private; but what we can observe is that the motto ‘stronger’ is a dangerous one. 

So, what does this all mean?

I’m not saying that we ban the Olympics. We need them. They are so much more than just a sporting event; they bring hope, inspiration, energy, unity, pride. What I am saying is that we need to ensure these positive experiences extend to the athletes. They should not be shamed by unrealistic and impossible expectations nor crushed by a fear of not seeming good enough. They should feel they can be honest about their struggles without being branded a useless ‘embarrassment’. There are changes that need to be made and conversations that need to be had. I really hope that Simone Biles’ courageous decision serves as a starting point …


[1] I do feel a teensy bit sorry for all the athletes who missed their moment in the commentating spotlight because Matt Baker decided to discuss at length the fascinating saga of Simone Biles taking off and putting on her armguards, but that is a discussion for another day …

Jess Steadman (she/her) is the Senior Cultures Editor at The Oxford Blue. She is a second year studying Medieval Literature at Univ and is from (mostly sunny) Essex. If you want to find her, she is probably chopping about on the Isis River.