CAPE TOWN - A SUMMER Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, that has divided opinion because it is happening during the Covid pandemic will also be remembered as the one when some of the greatest athletes made the greatest of statements about mental health, about the trauma of mental health and how mental health is as restricting to their performance as any physical injury.
For the most, these athletes, most notably American gymnast Simone Biles, have been globally applauded for their strength and courage in speaking out, and also for being prepared to sacrifice the possibility of a medal when they have identified the dangers to their sanity and withdrawn from an event or match.
There have been a few very influential media voices who have mocked these athletes, called them weak, accused them of letting themselves and their country down, and challenged them to keep on fighting to be a winner.
The most vocal has been Daily Mail columnist and controversial media personality Piers Morgan. However, his attacks and rants have targeted black female athletes because when England cricketer Ben Stokes 24 hours ago announced he was taking an indefinite time out from the game because of mental health, Morgan suddenly lost his voice. There was no appetite to condemn the actions of an English cricketer.
Stokes, who played the most extraordinary of innings to beat Australia in a Test match, is a fighter, strong-willed and among the best in his sport. There is nothing weak about Stokes, just like there is nothing weak about Biles or tennis’s Naomi Osaka, who are two of the most prominent current athletes to publicly speak out on their own mental health issues and their battles in coping with the unrelenting and intense media scrutiny of their careers.
Swimming’s Michael Phelps, with 28 Olympic medals, is the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, lived a professional sporting career with depression and mental health issues. It was only after he retired that he spoke about his daily struggles and anguish, which at one point had him considering suicide.
Boxing’s heavyweight world champion Tyson Fury is one of the most outspoken athletes on the reality of mental illness and its prevalence among the sporting elite.
Those influencers of opinion within the global sporting media are also starting to understand the seriousness of the issue and are starting to write on the subject with empathy and sympathy and also in an educational way.
Morgan is the lone exception in his archaic thinking and likes to marry mental health with a woke culture of weakness. Mental health has nothing to do with a woke culture.
Mental health issues have been around forever, but what this generation has done is speak about it so openly and the more these athletes talk, the easier it becomes for youngsters to talk about their own mental health issues.
I do a lot of reading on the subject of mental illness among professional sportspeople and one of the more educational pieces was written by John Affleck, who is a Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society. Affleck spoke of how professional athletes were particularly susceptible to mental health issues and that neither gender, nor the type of sport, made anyone immune.
He quoted Phelps, NFL receiver Brandon Marshall and Olympic medallist Brigetta Barrett on their respective mental health struggles. He spoke with several experts about why athletes are so vulnerable to mental health issues.
Among the answers were because these individuals were “high-achieving perfectionists” and that results can’t always match the athlete’s own expectation.
Affleck pertinently wrote of “playing sports in the age of anxiety”.
The seriousness of mental health is being recognised within the sporting world by those who employ the players or invest in the athletes.
England’s Football Association led the way with a campaign that mental fitness was just as important as physical fitness, with Prince William making the public announcement.
What has changed is that athletes are willing to talk about their own mental health, whereas historically athletes were expected to suffer in silence and absorb every insult and setback.
Phelps, on his social media platform, tweeted that “getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness”.