Having been denied the everyday pleasures of pre-Covid freedom for over a year, there’s no question that this year’s Tokyo games have been one of the most awaited Olympics in living memory. However, the past few days of the events also stand out as the dawn of a new era in athletics, brimming with burgeoning social issues as individuals feel increasingly confident in themselves to follow their hearts. In mere weeks, a swell of togetherness in the face of the status quo for competing athletes has sparked a sense of awakening, spreading far beyond sports to question mental health, inclusivity, substance use, and more in the industry.
Read on for four moments from the 2020 Olympics that have opened the world’s eyes to social issues in the world of sports.
Mental health or physical wealth? – American gymnast Simone Biles
“Put mental health first because if you don’t then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to. It’s OK sometimes to sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself.” – Simone Biles, American gymnast
When an athlete experiences physical injury, there is often a team of medical personnel including doctors and trainers to the rescue, ensuring a speedy recovery. However, mental illness in sport is overlooked and an athlete may be left with feelings of loneliness and abandonment, unsure of where to turn.
Reigning Olympic gymnastics champion Simone Biles announced July 28 that she will not defend her Olympic gold medal in the individual all-around competition in order to focus on her mental health. The 24-year-old gymnast’s withdrawal sparked renewed conversations about whether enough is being done to protect athletes’ wellbeing, with increasing scrutiny on US Gymnastics and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, as Biles was one of the dozens of athletes put through sexual abuse from former US gymnastics coach Larry Nassar. During Nassar’s trial and sentencing, Biles battled crippling depression.
Genuine inclusivity among namesake diversity – Swimming caps for all
“If the (official swimming bodies) are talking about representation, they need to speak to the communities to find out what the barriers are that are preventing us from engaging. Hair is a significant issue for our community.” – Danielle Obe, founding member of the Black Swimming Association
A decision made by the members of the International Swimming Federation (FINA) earlier this month banned swimming caps designed for natural Black hair at the Olympics, sparking outrage in athletic communities. The organization said the caps did not fit “the natural form of the head” and to their “best knowledge the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require … caps of such size and configuration.” This brings light to the ingrained systemic and institutional disparities around the sport of swimming.
According to the sport’s governing body, Swim England, only 2% of regular swimmers are Black. Black children are also three times more likely to drown than white children due to lack of appropriate swimwear available for them. Obe tells The Guardian that there already exist ethnic barriers – from the myth of black people having heavier bones to dry skin – that discourage black people from, quite literally, testing the waters, and that the decision made by FINA is bound to discourage the few that want to.
Through the championing of diversity in sport, inclusivity in every aspect is just as important.
Sexualization of women in sports – German women’s gymnastics team
“We women all want to feel good in our skin. In the sport of gymnastics, it gets harder and harder as you grow out of your child’s body. As a little girl, I didn’t see the tight gym outfits as such a big deal. But when puberty began, when my period came, I began feeling increasingly uncomfortable.” – Sarah Voss, German gymnast
The German women’s gymnastics team changed things up during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics with their leotards, a move that comes in an effort to reduce the “sexualization” of the sport. As noted by CNN, the team chose to wear outfits with long sleeves and ankle-length pants to the women’s qualifier competition, which took place in Tokyo on Sunday, July 25. The team performed their routines in unitards with burgundy pants and cutout details at the ankles. Traditionally, gymnasts compete in bikini-cut “minitards” with long or half sleeves, or go sleeveless.
The team’s new outfits were meant to “present [themselves] aesthetically — without feeling uncomfortable,” according to German gymnast Elisabeth Seitz. With the move, the team is fighting outdated gendered and sexist dress codes that have long prevailed in the industry, enabling women in sports to look attractive rather than be able to play comfortably.
Substance use – American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson
“Without my grandmother, there would be no Sha’Carri Richardson. So my family is my everything. My everything until the day I’m done.” – Sha’Carri Richardson, American sprinter
American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who was set for a star turn at the Tokyo Olympics this month, is absent from the Games after testing positive for marijuana, of which recreational consumption is legal in her state (but it is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances). The 21-year-old runner won the women’s 100-meter race at the U.S. track and field trials in Oregon last month, but her positive test automatically invalidated her result at the marquee event. In an interview with NBC last week, Richardson related her use of marijuana as a coping mechanism for the unexpected passing of her biological mother while she was in Oregon for the Olympic trials. Richardson, raised by her grandmother, said she learned about the death from a reporter during an interview and called it triggering and nerve-shocking. “It sent me into a state of emotional panic,” she said, adding, “I didn’t know how to control my emotions or deal with my emotions during that time… I greatly apologize if I let you guys down, and I did,” to her family, supporters, and sponsors.
Athletes are no less immune to drug use and addiction than anyone else, and their risks may be heightened by the intense pressure to perform, management of and recovery from sports-related pain and injuries, or even to self-treat mental health issues. Some of the world’s most famous athletes have spoken openly about their own fight with addiction and mental ill-health, including Michael Phelps, Lamar Odom, and Andre Agassi.
Historically, times of hardship often give way to a renaissance as people seek out new solutions to new and pre-existing challenges. The 2020 Olympics are no different.