For decades, we have got used to elite athletes retiring in their early thirties, sometimes even in their late twenties. When those who ruled the roost after bursting on to the stage begin to lose some of their sharpness, when bones that ought not to have started creaking yet begin to do so, we ask about their retirement plans. We shake our heads and say they do not know when to call it quits. When they retire out of turn, we are shocked. But, we say, why so early, they had so much game left in them. They’ve let their fans down.
Such is the brutality of elite sport—the demands of the body weighed against the demands of coaches and fans. It does not help that every sport, be it individual or team, becomes at some stage or in some tournament, associated with country and therefore patriotism. One “bears the nation’s hopes”. And if one were to break a neck or skull, the fans will tut-tut and speak of what a pity it is. The more resourceful of the said fans will find photographs and sad music and post videos about the “tragedy” of so-and-so on YouTube, hoping to garner millions of views.
The exit of a tearful Naomi Osaka from her home Olympics, the withdrawal of Simone Biles from several events in Tokyo, and the retirement of Sjef van den Berg at the event have raised questions about the emotional, mental and psychosomatic toll of competing at this level, juggling triumph and disappointment and hope and hero-worship.
Osaka withdrew from multiple Grand Slam events citing her mental health ahead of the Olympics. It is hardly surprising. Her first great triumph, the 2018 US Open—the first ever Grand Slam win for a Japanese player—should have been the most joyous moment of her life. Instead, she had to contend not only with boos from the audience, but coldness from the woman who presented her the trophy, and arguably the least gracious appeal for calm from her opponent, Serena Williams, who had spent much of the match screaming at the umpire.
The President of the US Tennis Association Katrina Adams’ reaction was, “Perhaps it’s not the finish we were really looking forward to today, but Serena, you are a champion of all champions.”
Williams herself mock-scolded the audience for booing and said, as if she were at a funeral, “Let’s make this the best moment we can, and we’ll get through it, but let’s give everyone the credit they’re due. Let’s not boo anymore. We’re going to get through this and let’s be positive…thank you, crowd, you really are the best in the world.”
The only cheers Osaka got was when she apologised for the win: “I know everyone was cheering for her, and I’m sorry it had to end like this.” She went on to nearly drop the trophy and looked embarrassed hoisting it up.
The autobiographies of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, as different from each other as the players were, have one thing in common—both speak of the enormous investment, monetary and otherwise, that goes into competitive tennis. Players make sacrifices. Families make sacrifices. Loss brings grief. Sometimes victory brings grief. When players skip press conferences, they are penalised or persuaded to appear. They are often forced into certain commitments by sponsors who caught them early.
Osaka’s tears at the press conference after her exit from the Tokyo Olympics and her dodging of questions about her future in the game tell a story.
The story is echoed by Simone Biles, whose gravity-defying skills have stunned audiences across the world for years. At 25, she already has several manoeuvres named after her. She won six medals, including four golds, at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and yet is being accused of letting the country down. This is a woman who, as a child, survived years in foster care and then more than a decade of verbal and sexual abuse from her coaches and team doctor respectively. She was among the over-one-hundred victims of Larry Nassar, and in 2018, spoke of how the abuse had brought suicidal thoughts and triggered her trauma even at the thought of returning to the facility where it had occurred — the Karolyi Ranch — which she would have to do to train for Tokyo 2020.
The brutal preparation begins on children who are barely five or six years old. Coaches ask the impossible of the body; if one hesitates, one is a “coward”. That was the adjective bestowed on Elena Mukhina, the Soviet gymnast who became an unlikely star — beating Romanian sensation Nadia Comaneci—right before she broke her neck trying the dangerous Thomas salto. A Soviet documentary on a preparation camp in 1978 shows just how cruel the regime of negging and encouraging and bullying and controlling could be. In an infamous interview, Mukhina—who lived as a quadriplegic for 26 years before dying of complications from her condition—would speak of how the coaching team had accused her of “simply not wanting to do it.” People like her did not break their necks, the coaches insisted. She could not refuse. She was recovering from surgery on her legs when she was forced to return to training that would culminate in a career- and eventually life-ending injury.
Simone Biles posted training footage on Instagram to explain that her “mind and body are simply not in sync.” She struggled with her landings, and missed turns. While competing, she lost her bearings halfway through a flip. The fans don’t need to “realise how dangerous this is on a hard, competitive surface”. Nor do they know it is “petrifying to do a skill”. But they demand explanations when an athlete puts his or her physical or mental health first. After all, Kerri Strug contributed to a team gold by vaulting on an injured ankle in 1996. Never mind that she later spoke of how she had been coerced into it, and falsely led to think the team would lose without her pushing herself into the manoeuvre, which further injured the ankle.
We know of the Adriana Duffys and the Christy Henrichs and the Julissa Gomezes and Melanie Colemans and Sang Lans. But, according to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, no less than 100,000 gymnasts suffer serious injuries every year. They start ever younger and perform ever more difficult skills.
Dutch Archer Sjef van den Berg is less famous than the two women who made headlines for all the wrong reasons at Tokyo. He is an archer who nearly won two Olympic medals, but not quite. Having retired at 26 following a second-round loss, he said, “I leave relieved. The same moment the headache came (after the match), I also felt a weight drop off my shoulders.”
Van den Berg is so in love with archery he has a day job at a bow shop, and that’s where he plans to return. But competing gave him cluster migraines.
Even as technology appears to make sport safer, it forces players to push their boundaries further and further, sometimes collapsing mentally or physically or both—and leaving hem somehow answerable to millions whose only manoeuvre is to press a button on the remote control or, at best, to wave a country flag at the venue.