Tokyo 2020 - Life at the Olympic Village in the Games which took place in July and August of 2021. There were 11,000 athletes in the village. This year they had to handle the pressures of a post-pandemic world in a city still wrangling COVID-19. Photo Credit: IOC Flickr page/Matthew Jordan Smith

Keep your head high. Mental health took the gold medal at Tokyo 2020

3 mins read

The Olympics provide a sense of prestige not only for the host countries, but also to participants that experience transformative moments. This time, athletes were able to tackle mental health.

Naomi Osaka proudly lit the Olympic cauldron to officially open the Games of the XXXII Olympiad. Representing her mother’s country of Japan in women’s tennis, she affirmed the moment to be her greatest athletic achievement and honor that she will ever have in her life. Yet and still, on the other side of the coin comes the pressure of the games. Weeks before her historic gesture, Osaka did not realize that her stance of self care would set a trend expanding beyond sports competitions. Osaka placed mental health into the narrative of the Olympics.

Leading up to the games, Osaka, who has been a staunch supporter of Black Lives Matter campaigns, dropped out of the French Open after her refusal to participate in a post-game press conference. Her departure from engaging with the media led to major tournament officials threatening to ban her from future participation. As a response, Osaka dropped out of professional competitions indefinitely, with only the commitment of participating in the Olympics. On her Instagram page, she admitted to dealing with anxiety and other issues when engaging with the press.

“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world`s media,” Osaka mentioned.

| Read: Millennials raise awareness for mental health in Black community

Tom Dumoulin in TT bike world championships. Photo credit: Mikel Zubieta via Wikimedia Commons

Japan’s Olympic officials stood by the young tennis champion, but she was not the only Olympian facing mental health issues. Track and field sprinter, Noah Lyles, talked about his battle with depression after winning a bronze medal in the 200 meters. Before mainstream mental health discussions regarding Olympic competitors became a safe space, Lyles talked about his family’s history of mental health and having a therapist.

At the same time, being well in body and mind was not just an “American thing.” Dutch cyclist, Tom Dumoulin, stepped away from racing earlier this year when he grew unhappy with the sport. Burnt out by the pressures of racing, Dumoulin explained his ad hoc hiatus when he said, “The pressure, the expectations from different parties . . . I want to do well for everybody but over the course of doing that I kind of forgot myself.” He returned to win the silver in men’s individual cycling.

| Read: Mental health is real: Two high profile suicides within days of each other, rock fashion and food industry

The conflation of a global pandemic, along with high-profile political movements such as Black Lives Matter, and the stress of competing in the Games, caused mental health issues to take the fore for some competitors. In basketball, Liz Cambage, a Women’s National Basketball Association player who was scheduled to represent Australia, left the Games after expressing anxiety of the COVID-19 measures in the Olympic bubble. “Relying on daily medication to control my anxiety is not the place I want to be right now. Especially walking into competition on the world’s biggest sporting stage,” posted Cambage on her Instagram page.

During the Games, track-and-field shot put silver medalist, Raven Saunders was open about her mental health issues and struggle with suicide. Shockingly, after she encouraged those who were having emotional and psychological problems to seek help, her mother, Clarissa Saunders died in Charleston, South Carolina shortly after she saw her daughter’s first Olympic win. Since, Raven has taken a leave of absence.

One of the most highlighted cases of mental health was around phenomenal world champion gymnast Simone Biles. Entering into the Olympics as the favorite to dominate and win, she dropped out of five of her events after suffering a mental health crash. Some felt Biles’ fold under presssure. Texas deputy attorney general, Aaron Reitz, called Biles “selfish, childish national embarrassment,” when comparing her performance to that of the 1996 Olympic performance of gymnast Kerri Strug.

Since, the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton labeled Reitz’ comments as “very inappropriate and insensitive.” AG Paxton said that he would handle the matter internally, but no word of action has been reported. Nonetheless, in the end, Biles took home a bronze in the women’s balance beam, and was recently given a hero’s welcome when she returned to Texas after the Games.

While the intensity of competing remains, the focus and support for athletes took a turn on the largest sports platform in the world.

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