World No.2 Naomi Osaka skipped Roland Garros and Wimbledon to focus on her mental health. After losing in the third round of the Olympics this week, her comeback tournament, she then said this:
“I feel like I should be used to it by now but at the same time, I think the scale of everything is a bit hard because of the break that I took.”
A few days after Osaka’s loss, Simone Biles, widely regarded as one of the best gymnasts of all time, pulled out of multiple events with a similar justification.
The reaction has been predictable, noisy, and angry. A mixture of desperate-for-attention press and a swathe of angry blue-checks who think Osaka and Biles are ‘soft’. The latest episode of the current obsession with turning everything and anything into well worn culture wars.
One of the irritating things about this latest episode is that I’m actually quite sympathetic to the argument that parts of the world are ‘soft’ in 2021. After all there are plenty of reasons for that to be the case. Since the 1940’s there are more and more democracies and fewer and fewer autocracies, there have been no battles between major powers for seventy-plus years, a steep reduction in overall battle deaths since the 1950s, and there’s been an enormous decrease in the number of people living in extreme poverty in large parts of the world. Stakes are probably lower right now on average, at least in an absolute rather than relative sense, than at any point in our recorded history. Humans that are alive right now, certainly in most western countries, can likely afford to be softer than ever before, with our technological and sociological progression enabling a wider comfort zone.
There are productive debates to be had about the merits of things like ‘everyone’s a winner’, or ‘equity-above-all-else’ schooling, as well as the western world’s current definitions, and treatments, of ‘mental health’, all to a backdrop of a world which still ruthlessly rewards perseverance and hard work over quitting-early and indolence. But that nuanced debate about how ‘soft’ the world is simply doesn’t apply in every scenario of someone choosing to prioritise themsleves. That would be insane.
And yet here we are.
Naomi Osaka is one of the top two female tennis players on earth right now at age 23. She’s won four Slams and recently occupied the No.1 ranking spot. Simone Biles won national tournaments with broken toes, succeeded in spite of sexual assault from the doctor of USA Gymnastics, and, among other gritty and notable achievements, ascended to the absolute pinnacle of a deeply competitive sport. She is 24. I really don’t think it’s possible to accurately label these people, who have already proven their work and mettle to such extreme degrees, ‘soft’. It would be like watching someone succeed for 99% of their life and then writing them off as an abject and weak failure because they had a bad month at work. There is far more evidence in favour of both Osaka and Biles being mentally tough and resilient than there is for them to be ‘soft’. Any other conclusion would just be an overdose on recency bias, in the midst of a global pandemic no less.
One of the biggest problems with armchair culture-war-of-words is that it’s impossible to know what would have happened had these players or athletes persevered through their respective struggles. Had Osaka played Roland Garros and Wimbledon perhaps she would have been fine, maybe she even would have gone deep in each tournament. Or perhaps she would have broken down in the face of press like Jennifer Capriati did in 1999, forcing more mental strife and an even longer break from the sport. Had Biles not pulled out of events this week in Tokyo perhaps she would have been ok, maybe she would have won multiple gold medals. Or perhaps, given her account of having a case of ‘the twisties’ (a well known mental block in which gymnasts lose their spatial awareness in the middle of complex skills), she would have suffered a terrible, career-ending injury. History is unfortunately littered with examples of the more sinister reality materializing, sportsmen and women who didn’t protect themselves simply because they didn’t know a reality existed where they could. British Olympian and speed skater Elise Christie pushed herself so hard to compete in a 1000m heat, despite a serious ankle injury, that she ‘broke herself as a person’ and the aftermath nearly killed her. American Olympian and gymnast Dominique Moceanu competed, at just 14 years old, with a tibial stress fracture which led to a bad fall on to her head. These are not ‘soft’ people, and, in dangerous events like gymnastics, these are not low stakes.
Square peg, round hole
There are upsides and downsides to a society becoming softer, much of which would inarguably have been considered extreme luxury by our more violent and generally poorer ancestors. We should clearly acknowledge ways in which this softening will hurt the human race, perhaps harmfully shielding people from necessary learning and development, coddling us into a false sense of security in the face of a future black swan event and/or war, or restricting the most talented and able among us in the name of well-meaning but impotent umbrella terms like ‘fairness’. Perhaps above all we should avoid fetishising weakness and failure at all costs. But we should also appreciate and understand the extremely modern and nascent privilege where many human beings, not just professional athletes, can, more so than ever before, proudly prioritise their health and guard themselves from harm, as a productive evolution of our societies and humanity.
Parts of the media’s infatuated insistence with trying to jam every trending square-peg topic into the round hole of whatever the latest culture war is, represents a deeply unhelpful direction. Neither Osaka nor Biles belong in the culture war of ‘is our society too soft’. Two world class athletes, who have already surpassed numerous obstacles that would have been too much for most of the population, don’t fit that shape. No matter how hard you push.
If you have any questions on the above, let me know in the comments. No question is dumb.
I’ll see you on Monday for Olympic final match analysis.
The Racquet goes out twice a week, a (free) topical piece every Thursday and a (paid) analysis piece every Sunday/Monday.
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Biles has to be one of the most mentally tough athletes ever to hv performed at that level in such a precise and precarious sport. Tiny loss of focus and as you said, potentially terrible consequences. To hv taken herself out of the comp was extraordinarily brave but also demonstrated great self awareness and wisdom. She knew.
The “twisties” in gym cannot be compared to the yips in say serving or putting, even tho they result in loss of form. They do however tell me that nerves did kick in ( due to what extremes of stress and pressure, we can only guess at). However, 24 is old for a gymnast and she was not at peak coming in. Her peak was in Rio and even earlier. The combo of external pressure, increasing awareness of her time and the difficult nature of these Olympics cannot hv helped.
I find Osaka’s situation different. I worry that she doesn’t love tennis or her chosen path quite enough. She is also a thinker, fully aware and pained by the inequalities she sees, and wants to be active on that front. To be admired and applauded but it makes for additional stress in the life of an elite athlete which asks basically for selfishness and an almost hermit like existence to achieve greatness. Hard balance. I am also concerned she may hv a tendency to depression ( purely conjecture) so I hope she can surround herself with ppl who care for her and not just her causes.