A true Olympian is strong. They are the perfect epitome of “greatness” simply because of their incredible talent and hard work that brought them to the world’s most prestigious multi-sport event. Many can learn a sport, some can be called an athlete, but not a lot can be called an “Olympian.” To be an Olympian, one must be prepared beyond 100%. To be an Olympian, one must be strong.
But we, the spectators in the benches or even in front of our screens at home, should also remember that “strong” does not just refer to the athlete’s physical strength but also, equally important, mental strength. One cannot go over the other. When a person focuses too much on their physical strength (because, well, that is what the spectators see in their naked eyes) while ignoring the other ailing parts of their mind and body, they may likely crash out.
This is what seems to have happened to Singapore’s golden boy Joseph Schooling at the Tokyo Olympics’s 100-meter butterfly event (or the event where he won the gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics) on July 29. The results were not as stellar as he and his country had hoped to be: he finished at 44th place, missing a spot for the semifinals. He has not spoken yet after the crash-out, although he said on Instagram a day later: “I’ll take some time to process everything.”
I want to win more than ever but at the same time, it is also important to strike a balance, letting go of what I can and cannot control – that takes the extra stress and pressure off your shoulders.Joseph Schooling, Singaporean swimmer
Schooling, who was pressured to win another gold this year, had publicly talked about mental health. In a VICE story published in October 2020, he said that mental health may even be more important than physical strength. "I want to win more than ever but at the same time, it is also important to strike a balance, letting go of what I can and cannot control – that takes the extra stress and pressure off your shoulders," he said.
Simone Biles, often regarded by the media as the best gymnast America has ever produced, meanwhile, had announced that she would drop out of the team gymnastics competition at the Tokyo Olympics on July 27, citing prioritizing her mental health as the reason.
That just hurts my heart because doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.Simone Biles, US gymnast
“At the end of the day, we are human, too, so we have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,” she told reporters after the competition. Biles also said that she had hoped to compete for herself but also “felt like I was still doing it for other people... So that just hurts my heart because doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”
Biles returned to the competition on August 3, winning a bronze in the balance beam final. I like what she said about how this particular bronze medal means more than all of the golds because this represents her renewed focus on her mental health and perseverance rather than performing for others.
Even ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, tennis superstar Naomi Osaka also spoke up about mental health, too, explaining in an essay for TIME that she withdrew from the French Open in May this year to continue advocating for her own mental health. She, too, has had enough already.
"It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does. The number of messages I received from such a vast cross-section of people confirms that," Osaka said in her essay. "I think we can almost universally agree that each of us is a human being and subject to feelings and emotions."
It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does.Naomi Osaka, tennis champion
While Tokyo Olympics has been a moment of national pride for many participating countries’ fans worldwide, we should also not disregard the fact that mental health has been a common issue with many participating athletes. What’s up with that? And why are more and more athletes speaking up about it already? It has to mean something.
Of course, these Olympians are not the only ones who are going through levels of mental struggles. During the COVID-19 pandemic, about 4 out of 10 adults have reported having symptoms of anxiety or depression, according to a study by Kaiser Family Foundation, a US-based NGO that focuses on national health issues. Whereas from January to June 2019, or before the pandemic, only one out of 10 adults reported having these symptoms.
Personally, I have also experienced a toll on my mental health particularly last year when the pandemic hit and my arranged plans to study abroad had been derailed. I wrote about it in an op-ed, where I shared how hard it was to cope because of my own family and friends’ scrutiny. Further, in another op-ed and a podcast interview, I also opened up about my then-career in the TV industry and its negative effects on me, including my mental health. As I shared in those media pieces, I decided to leave my six-year career in the industry already, because even though I loved it so much, I also thought that it was not worth my physical and mental health, too.
And when I chose to prioritize my well-being over a job, that is when I felt I became a winner of my own battles.
That is why I became genuinely happy for Schooling, Biles, and Osaka. To work for others was one thing, but to work for oneself was another. It is never the same.
To work for others was one thing, but to work for oneself was another. It is never the same.
Athletic fans are probably going overboard in putting too much pressure on our athletes. We have become so used to just seeing them on our screens and demanding that they do this and that; we often forget that they are humans, too, and that they may actually get hurt and obtain major injuries in doing those incredibly dangerous stunts for us. I do not think that we acknowledge enough that the pressure that we put on them puts their mental health in jeopardy.
When Olympians like Schooling, Biles, and Osaka used their influence (especially on the youth) to publicly talk about the state of their mental health, they also sent one very important message: Mental health matters.
Maybe Schooling, Biles, and Osaka do not know it yet but they are encouraging many young people to take care of their mental health, too, and to start prioritizing self-care and good health ahead of anything. That makes them champions in their own right.
After all, during these hard times, good mental health is a gold medal already.
Juju Z. Baluyot is a Manila-based writer who has written in-depth special reports, news features, and opinion-editorial pieces for a wide range of publications in the Philippines. The views expressed are his own.