09 August 2021 | REBEKAH WANIC AND NINA POWELL | Spiked
As in Olympics past, Tokyo 2020 has had its fair share of controversies, inviting commentary on wider political issues and on the 21st-century culture wars – from sexism in Japanese culture to athletes seeking political asylum. But US gymnast Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from several events was easily the most talked about story of the Games.
Biles’ withdrawal also arguably opened the door for her teammate, Sunisa Lee, to win gold. And the differences in Biles’ and Lee’s stories – and the amount of attention given to them – are instructive.
The commentary about Biles during this Olympics has focused on her mental health. It began with suggestions that her appearance at the Games could be ‘triggering’ because of the Larry Nassar scandal (Nassar, the former doctor for the US gymnastics team, abused hundreds of girls, including Biles). Biles’ Tokyo story ended with the revelation of a family loss.
The focus on Biles’ mental health was not in and of itself surprising, given the attention given to mental health in today’s culture. What was surprising was how much less media attention was given to the tragedies suffered by Sunisa Lee, even despite her gold-medal victory. Lee has had to care for her father since 2019, when he suffered a disabling spinal-cord injury. And in the run-up to the Games, two of her close family members died of Covid-19.
These two Olympians both suffered great tragedies. But the resilience narrative, in Lee’s decision to compete and win gold despite her personal struggles, was clearly of less interest than Biles’ narrative – that attention to mental health takes priority over all else. The focus on Biles’ narrative over that of Lee highlights that self-determination and the virtues associated with overcoming adversity are no longer celebrated in the way they once were – even in the context of the Olympics, which is typically thought to signify the peak of human exceptionalism and triumph.
Athletes have always faced physical and mental struggles. But traditionally the focus has been on athletes overcoming their struggles, not on the struggles themselves. Nor have these struggles always been discussed as part of an effort to promote mental-health awareness.
There has been an ongoing shift towards what we call a ‘mental-health culture’. This culture tends to conflate ‘mental wellbeing’ with ‘mental health’, and ‘mental struggle’ with ‘mental illness’. You can struggle with stress, waning motivation and anxiety about performance without any of this rising to the level of a clinical mental-health concern. But once mental struggles are viewed through the lens of health and illness, there is a narrative that follows: you must attend to your mental health, take care of your illness, take a break – because you must look after your health.
This is Biles’ narrative. When an athlete sprains his or her ankle, we would expect the athlete to take a break from competing to rest and recover. Now that all mental struggle is framed as ill-health, we expect the same response when someone experiences mental distress.
Athletes should of course make the choices that are right for them. Taking time off to de-stress, reset, or even deal with a genuine, diagnosed mental illness is a personal decision. As an accomplished athlete and public figure, however, Biles’ decisions – which she discussed with the public at press conferences and on social media – have become part of a public discourse. And the response to Biles gives us an insight into why this mental-health culture is so problematic. The collective celebration of Biles’ decision shows how comfortable we have become with simply giving up.
This is a problem for society. Falling into a mental-health culture impedes the development of resilience, it comes from a place of privilege, it undermines the value of personal responsibility, and it prevents us from learning from negative emotions. Our concern here is not with Biles and the personal decisions she has made – but with a public discourse and a wider mental-health culture that we see as harmful. In fact, we see Biles’ behaviour as largely a product of a culture that has downgraded the importance of resilience. She is not personally to blame for her story collapsing into the mental-health narrative.
No pain, no gain
‘No pain, no gain’ is a phrase all athletes have heard – either from trainers, coaches or fellow athletes. It may have been overused to the point of triteness, but it still carries an important meaning. All athletes are used to working hard. Anyone who has attempted exercise knows that there is pain involved. And the higher the level you are competing at, the more hard work and pain you will have endured. If you are successful, you will have pushed through the pain and cultivated resilience.
Biles could not have achieved all she has achieved were she not used to showing up to training and competitions and putting in hard work. She will have pushed herself to her physical limits and then beyond, and worked through adversity and challenges – both mental and physical. But thanks to the focus on her mental health over her immense athleticism, this is all downplayed.
Success comes with costs, of course. Elite athletes spend hours training and pushing themselves. They sacrifice pleasures like fatty foods to perform at their peak. They expose themselves to immense stress. But these costs of success are necessary to earn that success. Medals, marketing deals, sponsorships, publicity – these cannot be attained without hard work and pain. When we expect glory without the struggle, we end up doing what comes easy rather than what is hard. And this stops us from ever reaping the rewards we desire.
One of the greatest rewards earned through struggle is the development of resilience. Resilience enables us to tackle the new challenges that we will inevitably face as we move forward. When we endure struggle, we learn more about what we are capable of, and we achieve things we never thought were possible.
What’s more, the more we try to avoid pain, the more we think only of our immediate wellbeing, the more risk-averse we become. We condition ourselves to see struggle and stress not as signs that we are working hard, but as signs that we should give up and find a more comfortable way of life.
Risk-aversion is bad for us in all areas of life. Developing strong relationships is risky; exploring new job opportunities is risky; having kids is risky; change is risky. Everything worth doing in life comes with the potential for pain and failure. When we avoid all risk, we no longer have the meaningful experiences that are so essential to our wellbeing.
The privilege of self-care
Turning inward and taking time off, instead of battling through your struggles, is not an option that many can afford. It is only those with enough financial and social capital who have the luxury of pulling out when the going gets tough.
It is a different story for the working classes. People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds – people who earn an hourly wage, who often don’t have vacation time or health benefits – are in no position to prioritise their mental health above hard work. The mental-health campaigns that celebrate self-care are not aimed at these people. And this is because there is an implicit understanding and agreement that we need them to carry on no matter what – we need our water, homes, schools and businesses to be clean, and we need buildings to get built. The cost of these workers giving up is too great. The ‘take time off’ narrative only applies to the elites – the people who can take a ‘duvet day’, because when they do nothing falls apart.
The daily grind of working-class people is stressful and challenging. Many of these workers are strong, physically and mentally, in ways that might test the resilience of even the most accomplished elites in society. The cleaners who turn up every day to keep things spotless during a pandemic have a resolve that could even surpass that of an Olympic athlete.
These workers are expected to work through their own stress and discomfort. If they didn’t, the roads that lead to the gym would fall into disrepair, the water athletes drink to quench their thirst would not be clean, and the waste they generate would pile up. If giving up were an option for these workers, the Olympic facilities wouldn’t get cleaned and disinfected, and athletes wouldn’t be able to practice or perform safely.
The importance of negative emotions
Another consequence of the mental-health narrative is that it frames negative emotions as things to be avoided at all costs.
No one should have to feel ashamed about who they are as a person. But when shame and guilt arise from our behaviour, the signal these emotions send is useful. They let us know that we might have done something wrong or, at the very least, we might have done something that isn’t appreciated by others.
Negative emotions are unpleasant, certainly. But it is precisely because they are unpleasant that they foster adjustment and correction. ‘Why did this feeling arise, and what can I do to reduce it in the future?’, we ask ourselves. This challenges us to confront our problems.
In our mental-health culture, normal aspects of the human condition – fear, uncertainty, frailty – come to be seen as pathologies. They are viewed as endemic to the individual and his or her mental health, rather than as circumstantial and therefore surmountable. By dismissing negative emotions as mental-health problems, we deny ourselves the opportunity to grow.
Then there is the question of personal responsibility. It takes strength and resilience to be held accountable for our decisions. It is much harder to say ‘I need to take some time off’ than it is to say ‘I have a mental-health issue’. ‘I feel off my game’ is harder to own than ‘I feel anxiety because I have a disorder’. When mental health is so casually held responsible for our own problems, we become much less likely to engage in the hard work that’s needed to overcome those problems.
This is not to suggest that real and serious mental illness can’t be experienced by athletes, or that those with mental illness cannot or do not engage in hard work. Rather, our point is that lots of people have now become accustomed to seeing difficult experiences and personal struggles through the lens of mental health, and that they then use the mental-health narrative as a crutch to avoid confronting negative experiences head-on.
Resilience and the Olympic spirit
The Olympics is supposed to showcase human exceptionalism. It is very worrying that it is now being used to celebrate capitulation. The more we value self-care over hard work, the more we pathologise every difficult aspect of the human experience, the less likely it is that events like the Olympics will continue to amaze us.
Elite athletic competition involves a lot of hard work. It requires athletes to be better than they ever thought they could be. It requires them not to give in to negativity and self-doubt, and to be unafraid of pushing themselves. It requires them to carry on moving forward.
If we no longer expect people to push themselves past any immediate discomfort, then many things will begin to crumble. We will no longer see people accomplishing amazing things. The celebration of self-care, the framing of all adversity as a sign of mental ill-health, cuts against the idea that people should rise above their challenges.
Giving up on the grand stage will get us nowhere. We can do far more to care for ourselves and for others when we focus on our strength and resilience.
Dr Rebekah Wanic and Dr Nina Powell are both senior lecturers at the National University of Singapore in the Department of Psychology.
Pictures by: Getty.