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Biles stumbles, Osaka out, spotlight on mental health, Tokyo 2020 says, ‘It’s okay’

Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka were predicted to leave a lasting impression on the Tokyo Olympics. And they did -- but just not in a way many had imagined.

Biles and Osaka, however, have shown that athletes need not necessarily subscribe to this glamourised struggle. (Reuters)

India’s gun-toting teens looked so shaken that they could barely utter a word after the team drew a blank on Tuesday. Some choked while talking, a few held back their tears, and all of them were visibly distraught. “They have fallen prey to the infamous Olympic pressure,” National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) president Raninder Singh said.

Hours later, two of the biggest names at the Tokyo Olympics had a simple message for athletes who succumb to pressure at this level: It’s okay.

Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka were predicted to leave a lasting impression on the Tokyo Olympics. And they did — but just not in a way many had imagined.

This was the Games where Biles, the American gymnast, would confirm her greatest-of-all-time tag beyond doubt. She simply had to turn up. But when the moment came on Tuesday, Biles pulled out of the team competition, citing her state of mind. And then, she withdrew from Thursday’s individual all-around competition, fearing it would be a risk to push through her dangerous routines while lacking confidence.

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Her decision came hours after tennis star Osaka, the face of the Tokyo Olympics, lost in the third round of the singles competition. The Japanese favourite, who lit the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony, also cited the mental toll of her profession as the reason for her early exit.

And just like that, in the space of six hours on Tuesday, Osaka and Biles drew attention away from the back-breaking competition and put the spotlight on an issue that’s often pushed to the background — an athlete’s mental well-being.

“I put my mental health first because if you don’t, you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to,” Biles told a media conference, her response as graceful as her rotations on the gymnastics floor. “It’s okay sometimes to even sit out big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and person you really are.”

The Olympics can be both wonderful and wretched. And the pressures are many. The athletes are expected to carry a country’s hopes and fears, and perform and win. Then, they are put under the knife, performances analysed to the minutest of degrees, and questioned or trolled.

Biles and Osaka, however, have shown that athletes need not necessarily subscribe to this glamourised struggle.

In 2019, an International Olympic Committee report said that in elite athletes, including Olympians, the rates of anxiety and depression could be as high as 45 per cent.

Behind the scenes in Tokyo, the sights of sportspersons overcome with anxiety and performance pressure are everywhere, as was evident with India’s young shooters competing in their first Olympics.

But athletes are also opening up about the Olympic pressure and its effect on mental health. Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, who won the silver medal in the 49kg category last Saturday, spoke about the demons in her head after she flopped in Rio five years ago. “I was disappointed and depressed, I didn’t have the urge to do anything. I even contemplated quitting the sport,” she said.

Skateboarder Nyjah Huston opened up about his struggles a day after he left empty-handed from his competition. A medal favourite, the American finished seventh in the street skateboarding tournament on Sunday. In an Instagram post the next day, he said the pressure of being an internationally renowned athlete “isn’t easy at times” and that he’s often “really hard” on himself when he doesn’t win.

Biles touched upon the additional stress brought about by the Tokyo Olympics, which got delayed by a year due to the pandemic and wrecked havoc with training programmes. “It’s been really stressful, these Olympic Games… it’s been a long week, a long Olympic process, a long year,” she said.

Tokyo 2020: Simone Biles wearing a protective face mask is seen leaving a medical station during the final. (Reuters)

This added pressure is showing even on some of China’s athletes. In the montage of Olympic emotions, it’s not often you see the visuals of a teared up Chinese athlete. It’s rare to see them succumb to the pressure; rarer even for them to express it.

However, it happened, of all places, at the shooting range where China’s players have built a reputation of being inscrutable in victory or defeat. But Wang Luyao, a Chinese rifle shooter favoured to win a medal, succumbed to the pressure and finished 18th in the 10m air rifle competition.

Consumed in self-guilt, she penned a short message for her followers: “Sorry everyone, I admit I chickened out.” Wang would not have predicted the storm that the Weibo post would stir. She got bullied and abused and ultimately, the South China Morning Post reported, Chinese censors had to delete dozens of posts and deactivate at least 33 accounts that attacked the athlete.

“I have failed and I will start from the beginning,” Wang wrote again, in a new post, almost apologising for her apology.

Under the spotlight, the Tokyo Games’ biggest stars may have suffered a power outage. But Biles and Osaka have shown they don’t need to be apologetic about it.

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