What is sacrificed by athletes who overcome racial and gender discrimination to become the almost god-like machines at the pinnacle of their respective disciplines that we see them as?
Our greatest athletes are often praised for ‘keeping their cool’, likened to machines, or hailed as the ‘Greatest Of All Time’ (a ‘GOAT’). This is particularly the case for minority athletes — whether of a minoritised gender, race, religion, or some combination of the three — who overcome the inequalities of structural discrimination and discrimination by the officials, opponents, and critics they face. These athletes, to an extent, are subject to more pressure, with the pressure of the groups they represent and as some of the rare famous figures that look like them.
We have previously written about the expectation that athletes stick to their sports and do not express opinions outside of sport.
As most sports have become more diverse and the dialogue surrounding personal struggles has become more open, mental health has also been included in introspective discussions.
Recently, mental health has come to the fore with the highly controversial nature in which Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open days after announcing she intended to boycott press conferences out of mental health concerns. Whilst the specific method with which she announced her planned boycott was criticised, Naomi herself admitted she could have gone about it better — but, then again, we have all done things we later regretted. More to the point, she revealed serious mental health struggles beyond just the past few months. Revealingly, when asked in the aftermath, Serena Williams commented that she empathised.
Debates on how to best address post-match questions from the press will likely last some time, but it has reopened discussions about mental health in sports, particularly the mental health of people who have personal characteristics other than male and White, which will expose them to more microaggressions that can be internalised and further threaten mental wellbeing.
At its core is the progress that we still need to make on combatting the stigma associated with mental health — if, for example, Naomi Osaka withdrew because of a chronic leg injury, the response would likely have been very different.
A mental health organisation in the US published a piece about the impact of sport on the mental health of Black athletes: the expectation that athletes can’t be seen as “weak”, particularly for men — which is, itself, problematic — combines with lived experience of consistent racial discrimination by society to create a dual layer of mental health inequality. The problem of stigma is by no means exclusive to American athletes. It is also a problem that affects White men — notably in rugby — but minoritised women face a combined intersectionality of inequalities.
Gymnastics is now infamous for the toxic culture of abuse and fear throughout the world. British gymnasts have spoken about eating disorders caused by their sport. Katelyn Ohashi, the American gymnast who went viral in 2019 for her perfectly scored collegiate gymnastics routine, was on course to compete in the Olympics before withdrawing and moving to collegiate competition — only doing so after ‘pushing through’ eating disorders and serious physical injuries.
No one wants to seem weak. Weakness is an obstacle when you have to stay strong in the face of racism, sexism, abuse, physical pain, and the constant questioning of your skills by the well-meaning press. But then, what even is weakness? If anything, it takes a great amount of strength to be vulnerable and open about personal struggles.
It is undeniable that we need to combat the cultural stigma surrounding mental health, especially when it comes to the mental health of athletes, but we also need to address the structural mental health inequalities — which are associated with many of the same intersectional inequalities that affect physical health — so that, when athletes do feel comfortable seeking help, they can receive the help they need.
In recent months, we have seen countless examples of minoritised ethnic women being belittled, not believed, or subject to further abuse when they have spoken openly about mental health struggles — there is fundamentally a cultural problem of these women being regarded with suspicion.
Sport is, to a large extent, a story of survival of the fittest, but at great cost. Whilst many athletes are our idols, we should be mindful of the expectations placed upon them, as they are, ultimately, just as human and vulnerable as the rest of us. We wouldn’t subject our friends or relatives to serious abuse, so we should not be hurling racist abuse at footballers, for example.
JAN Trust works to combat the issues presented by online abuse by raising awareness of its threats among young women and girls through our Another Way Forward™ workshops. We know that our actions and words all have an impact, and, indeed, we are keenly aware of the entrenched societal inequalities that affect many of our beneficiaries, including mental ill-health.
Each of us can make an impact on society through our own words and deeds. We can admire athletes for succeeding, but we cannot forget the cost at which that has come and the immense pressures they’re under. By addressing mental health stigma and mental health inequalities, we can all enjoy life more as a result.