Competitive Sports: The Two-Faced Truth

Picture of By Lea Teigelkötter

By Lea Teigelkötter

Every sports fan knows the feeling of sitting in front of the TV or, even better, in the front row of the arena, cheering up their favorite hero. The air vibrant of a thousand dreams projected onto a team of players or a single individual, scoring a goal or running a new record suddenly appear to be life or death situations. Every member of the audience, children and adults, simultaneously imagining what it must feel like to stand in the spotlight, being carried by one’s own admirers. 

While we like to look up to our heroes and pray for their wins almost religiously, we tend to forget the immense psychological pressure put on each athlete to perform. With psychological problems still forming a taboo subject in our society, most athletes do not find the courage to speak up. Whereas dropping out of a competition due to physical injury is being perceived as highly understandable or even praiseworthy as proof for having given 100% to win, in the audience’s eyes, mental illness often equals weakness and failure. And who would like to disappoint their fans? 

The Olympic games having been postponed for a year, consequently, complex training schedules and personal efforts have been destroyed and thrown away. Evidently, this year, the pressure to live up to one’s own potential was uniquely high. The story of Simone Biles, one of the world’s most successful gymnasts, finally shines a light on the dark truth of mental issues in the sports industry. 

The Challenges No One Talks About

In 2018, the gymnast first shared her story of being sexually abused by her team physician Larry Nassar. Considering Biles numerous successes and her popularity, her story is well-known. However, one must not forget that Nassar’s victims are made up of more than 140 girls and women. With a number this high, it is difficult to believe that other members  in the sports industry were clueless- unless one defines cluelessness as keeping your eyes shut to the truth. 

Next to the various articles reporting about Tokyo’s champions, Biles elicited a different kind of publicity during this year’s Olympic games. Despite being a fierce contender for multiple gold medals, due to psychological pressure, she decided to withdraw her participation from most events- and ended up “only” taking one bronze medal home. Controversially, I would like to think that this marks the high point of her career. By addressing her mental health issues, Biles did not only speak up for herself but for each and every one of the participants of this year’s games. She reminded all of us that behind the medal, there is a person. A person who has made unimaginable sacrifices in order to come as far as to fly to Tokyo and even to compete in the Olympics. 

The decision to take a step back, reflect and change a situation can create much more challenging obstacles for an individual’s mind than simply continuing regardless of one’s own health. 

One might argue that Biles did not have a lot to lose- after all, her shelves must be bursting from the weight of all the trophies she has accumulated over the years. However, no one plans each hour of every day down to the smallest detail over a period of several years to then “simply” quit. The decision to take a step back, reflect and change a situation can create much more challenging obstacles for an individual’s mind than simply continuing regardless of one’s own health. 

Alarming Statistics 

Of course, Biles is neither the first nor the last athlete to struggle with mental illness. Statistics show that up to 35% of professional athletes suffer from psychological diseases such as anxiety, depression or eating disorders. Considering how each step and each decision is carefully predetermined on a weekly training schedule, why can an issue affecting more than a third of these teenagers and young adults be so easily overlooked? 

Similarly to Biles, the famous swim star Michael Phelps ( who counts 28 Olympic medals ) still serves as an idol to many young adolescents aspiring to become successful athletes themselves. What most fans probably don’t know is how he suffered severely from anxiety and depression and was only able to combat his illness before the Olympics in 2016 with the help of a professional – a story he shared three years later. 

Here I was, thinking that an individual’s right to privacy does not come with a price tag. 

Not only the competition itself but the media coverage, press conferences and interviews that follow can be a major source for anxiety. While some fans are convinced to have earned the right for the explanation behind athletes’ defeats, the majority of the latter might not even get the chance to reflect upon their own performance before finding themselves with a microphone two centimeters away from their face. Having cancelled her press conference after her withdrawal from the French Open in 2021, the tennis star Naomi Osaka was not only scrutinized but punished with a $15,000 fine. Here I was, thinking that an individual’s right to privacy does not come with a price tag. 

A Wake-Up Call For The Sports Industry  

While being invested in performing sports as a teenager can be considered only positive, it clearly entails unpredictable mental health risks. Governments and sports officials must work together in order to create a safe environment for athletes. Mental support should be seen as the premise to athletic success instead of the last resource in case of repeated failure. After all, even if we tend to forget it: there is a human body with a heartbeat under every jersey, leotard or swimsuit- not a machine programmed to succeed. 

Next Saturday night, when you blame your favorite team for having lost yet another match and thus having ruined the rest of your night, try to remember the sacrifices that come with athletic success (and the comfort of sitting on your couch). 

Cover by Jim De Ramos on Pexels

Edited by Rajal Monga

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