Sport For Them, Not Us

Claire Thomson – She/Her

CW: mental illness

In recent years, sport has become a victim of modern media. Elite athletes are placed under unbelievable amounts of pressure to perform, meet public expectations, and have their private daily routines documented for all to critique. Following a big summer of sporting events, the achievements of athletes have been drowned out by a sea of controversies, masking the true meaning of sport. The reasons athletes choose to compete and represent their country at the highest level have been obscured. From appearances at the Met Gala to films and documentaries, athletes are being morphed into celebrities forced to entertain. But it’s about time that we stop treating athletes like performing monkeys and treat them like human beings.

Mental health: a term that was plastered on all forms of media throughout the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer and is currently at the forefront of the sporting world. Athletes are often portrayed as superhuman, with strengths that exceed those of you or I. But even the athletes who stand under the brightest spotlight have insecurities, vulnerabilities, and anxieties. Without doubt, the modern Olympic Games have evolved in a plethora of ways since they were re-established in the late 19th century. More apparent than ever is their ability to entertain and capture the attention of a crowd. Sport has been reduced down to pure entertainment no different to films, concerts, and television. Its ever-increasing popularity has resulted in the loss of Olympism: the spirit that surrounds the Olympic Games and other sporting events. The focus of sport should be the overcoming of differences between nationalities and cultures, the championing of friendships, and, ultimately, peace. This is why we subconsciously root for the underdog; we enjoy a story of inspiration and sacrifice, and we celebrate the achievements of every single athlete. The removal of crowds due to Coronavirus in Tokyo brought us back to the true meaning of sport within the venues. It gave athletes, such as US gymnast Simone Biles and Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, the confidence to stand up to the pressure of the media and prioritise their mental well-being. Alongside Michael Phelps who has been outspoken about his depression, these athletes have inspired others to remember to compete and participate in sport for their own enjoyment and personal achievements. 

Whilst the media takes the majority of the blame for criticising the performances of athletes, the attitudes and habits of individual nations do not aid the attempt to break down the stereotype of athlete invincibility. After years of success and countless gold medals, this summer, US swimmers Lilly King and Katie Ledecky both faced ‘settle for silver’ headlines alongside articles equating bronze medals to failure. King spoke out about the notion of American exceptionalism and the requirement for gold as a measure of success in an interview: ‘Just because we compete for the United States, and maybe we have extremely high standards for this sort of thing, that doesn’t excuse the fact that we haven’t been celebrating silver and bronze as much as gold’. It’s the belief that you either win or lose, with no in-between, causing many elite athletes to come in for barrages of criticism. Many of the main stories that came out of this year’s Olympics were not about the competitors who won gold. Instead, the focus was on the fact that once unbeatable athletes like Ledecky and King were beaten. Once again we have lost sight of the reasons athletes compete: personal goals, satisfaction, the love for their sport – it’s all been forgotten about. Modern media coverage has shaped the way we perceive sporting events. We expect to see outstanding performances by certain athletes, yet the pressure that we place on them to achieve these results can in fact prevent them reaching their full potential and damage their chances of success.

So, the question is, if athletes aren’t performers, why are we obsessed with spectating sports? Our human emotions often begin to control us when we watch sporting events. Just as athletes compete for themselves and their enjoyment, we, as vulnerable human beings, are desperate to be inspired by others in order to improve our own lives. When we see the incredible success of others, we feel an overwhelming sense of happiness which drives us to strive towards our goals and chase our dreams. The success of athletes and their teamwork is contagious. It is vitally important to protect the mental well-being of athletes, to look at each event or competition separately without comparing it to previous achievements. Most viewers are completely oblivious to the huge variety of factors that affect an athlete’s performance. So instead of piling on the pressure for another medal, we should focus on an athlete’s personal evaluation of their success and overall journey. We need to return to the true values of sport and escape the notions of perfection and invincibility.

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