Updated: August 8, 2021 9:14:16 am
When US gymnast Simone Biles unexpectedly withdrew from the Olympics saying she wasn’t in the right headspace, it created a furore. It has never happened that an athlete of Biles’s calibre has caved in to agonising pressure, preferring an exit bang in the middle of a competition.
Even one Olympics ago, Biles would have been berated for poor sportsmanship but the post-pandemic buzzword dominating the international narrative is: mental health. Twitter India itself has noted a 108% increase in mentions of the term ‘wellness’ and a surge in popularity of hashtags like #selflove #LoveYourSelf and #MentalHealthMatters.
Depending on one’s worldview, this display of fragility can feel either like righteous self-preservation or a euphemism for a cop-out. Recently, it feels like the world has done a dramatic U-turn, from stigmatising mental health problems to embracing them manically. So much so that while the greatest spectacle of human endurance is on, quitting is being hailed as some sort of noble act. What would happen if soldiers became immobile thanks to panic attacks before battle? Or if doctors and nurses started having breakdowns and not showing up for duty?
Civilisation is held together by a tangled web of small and large commitments, and we all have our little roles to play. The fact is, all work is, occasionally, painful. Not wanting to strive, resolutely, everyday, is rarely depression, anxiety — frightfully misused terms these days.
Stress is universal and a fear of failure haunts all of humanity. I dread writing this piece fortnightly. I’m convinced every time I begin that I’m a hopeless fraud with nothing new to say. While largely true, I do it anyway because leaving my editor in the lurch is not an option.
May the irony not be lost that in Tokyo, the athlete who succumbed to nerves and bailed last minute grabbed the media limelight, while the ones who set new world records remain relatively obscure. Quick, name the two 13-year-old girls who won the first ever medals for skateboarding, without Google? Everyone remembers Biles.
While one can certainly empathise with how difficult it must be to perform at a stratospheric level, it’s also true that the Games embody a brutal Darwinism — the Olympics is the ultimate test of the survival of the fittest.
The many meltdowns we are seeing all around is also a (not entirely surprising) culmination of the ‘participation trophy’ generation. Even in India, progressive schools frown upon rankings — first, second, third is infra-dig and prizes are freely distributed not on merit, but for showing up. This trend (of everyone is great in their own special way!) has infiltrated the discourse in all aspects of our lives. Drug addiction and alcoholism are “illness”, not poor decision-making. The conversation around obesity is fraught, dare one dwell on the huge health risks. Instead, ‘body positivity’ celebrates size in all its forms.
In this environment, praise for those who can push themselves to superhuman feats is almost a backhanded criticism, like they are not doing enough for those whose anxieties stood in their way.
There is nothing quite like the Olympics to remind us of our own inadequacies and at the same time provide an opportunity for reflection. The things we imbibe from watching sport, even if you don’t play anything, are setting goals, discipline, and crucially, honoring your place in a team. It is great progress, that the aura of shame surrounding peoples’ worst vulnerabilities is dissipating. However, an Olympic pedestal is the preserve of that minuscule minority that can conquer panic, the defining characteristic of a true champion.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 8, 2021 under the title ‘Quitting is the new winning’. The writer is director, Hutkay Films.
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