In sport, as in life, there are events within events. Moments that shape the moment of glory or moments that stay in the mind beyond the runs, wickets, goals and trophies. Moments that are more imperishable than numbers. As a breathless year of sport ends, and another sporting year restless to unfold, The Indian Express looks back at 2021.
“We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day, we’re human, too.”
The GOAT of gymnastics. The 4’8 American with the tallest stature of them all. The question following Simone Biles into the Tokyo Olympics was if she would equal her haul of four gold medals in Rio, or would she top it?
She ended up achieving something bigger: making mental health the subject of conversations in sports and beyond.
The first reminder that Biles was human came during the warmups for the team final, where she ended up doing 1.5 twists instead of the expected 2.5, barely staying upright. The mishap repeated itself in the competition, where she finished a twist short, with a large lunge and near-fall on the landing.
Fellow competitors quickly realised a case of ‘the twisties’ — gymnastics speak for an athlete’s loss of orientation and spatial awareness in the air which could result in missed landings. In other sports, missing by inches and centimetres means disqualifications or fouls. In Biles’ case, it could mean a broken neck.
The 24-year-old thus sat out the team event, and the all-around, floor exercise, vault and uneven bars in subsequent days. USA gymnastics called it a medical issue before Biles elaborated.
“I put my mental health first because if you don’t, you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to,” Biles told a media conference. “It’s okay sometimes to even sit out big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and person you really are.”
The Games’ postponement had meant putting her body through the wringer for another year. Add to that the emotional trauma of having been sexually abused by a team doctor, and reliving it in hearings and testimonies. She was also the face of the Olympics, with that dazzling smile concealing the “weight of the world on my shoulders”.
“I just physically and mentally was not in the right headspace and I didn’t want to jeopardise my health and my safety, because at the end of the day it’s not worth it,” she said after returning to action and winning the team silver and balance beam bronze.
Name-calling and criticism followed — ‘what about the Olympic spirit, the champion mentality?’ — but was promptly drowned by support. Biles had redefined the Olympic spirit and champion mentality: ‘It’s ok, to not be ok’.
“When I lose, I feel very sad. I didn’t really want to cry.”
After her campaign, Biles cited a fellow 24-year-old champion as the source of her courage.
“Naomi Osaka’s been a huge inspiration,” Biles spoke at the Games. “A couple of days ago I watched her whole docu-series on Netflix and it really shined a light on (mental health).”
It was the year that Osaka prioritised her mental health, taking on ‘Big Tennis’ in the process. After her announcement that she would not speak to the press at the French Open to not “subject myself to people that doubt me”, the tournament organisers pushed back with a hefty fine and “possible future consequences”. Osaka withdrew, and took a leave of absence from the sport.
“I wanted to skip press conferences at Roland Garros to exercise self-care and preservation of my mental health. I stand by that,” Osaka wrote in a Time magazine essay. “Athletes are humans. Tennis is our privileged profession, and of course there are commitments off the court that coincide. But I can’t imagine another profession where a consistent attendance record (I have missed one press conference in my seven years on tour) would be so harshly scrutinised.”
The scrutiny wasn’t dissimilar to the ‘stick to sports’ calls from last year, when Osaka — a Black, Asian woman — lent her support to the Black Lives Matter movement, wearing masks highlighting victims of racial injustice and police brutality en route to her US Open title.
Osaka made a comeback at her home Olympics, with the spotlight brighter than ever. She cited the mental toll of her profession as the reason for her third-round exit in Tokyo. And after a third-round exit from the US Open, she broke down.
“I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while,” Osaka said at a tearful post-match press conference. “This is very hard to articulate. Basically, I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match. Sorry.”
The anxiety and depression, coupled with endless waves of criticism and social media hostility, may have forced her to be vulnerable and apologetic, but Osaka was brave in recounting her struggles. Cricketer Ben Stokes, Aston Villa centre-back Tyrone Mings among several others left for the sake of their mental wellbeing. And Osaka reiterated the mantra in Time magazine: “It’s ok to not be ok, and it’s ok to talk about it.”
“Do I feel comfortable here? I wouldn’t say I do.”
“Let’s all make sure Naomi knows she’s not alone,” Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time Formula 1 world champion, had tweeted in support of the tennis star. ““Mental health is not a joke, this is real and serious. This takes a lot of courage to do.”
The 36-year-old continued to lead by example, using his platform to take a stand and wearing his heart on his helmet. The last three races of the season were staged in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates: countries where same-sex relationships are punishable offences. So Hamilton donned a rainbow-coloured ‘Progress Pride’ helmet in support of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Do I feel comfortable here? I wouldn’t say I do,” Hamilton told reporters in Jeddah, earlier this month. “But this was not my choice. Our sport has chosen to be here and whether it’s fair or not, I think that, while we’re here, it’s still important to do some work on raising awareness… If anyone wants to take time to read what the law is for the LGBT+ community, it is pretty terrifying. There are changes that need to be made.”
“Women need to be respected and not censored.”
In November, tennis player Peng Shuai—a two-time doubles Grand Slam winner —had posted on social media that she had been sexually assaulted by former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli. After that, the player disappeared, leaving the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and colleagues on the tour fearing for her safety.
It was then that WTA took an unprecedented stand against a sporting powerhouse, willing to relocate 10 tournaments including the year-end finals and jeopardise a 10-year deal estimated to be worth close to $1 billion.
“We are at a crossroads with our relationship with China and operating our business over there,” WTA chief executive Steve Simon told CNN. “We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business. Women need to be respected and not censored.”
Then earlier this month, WTA decided to withdraw from all activities in China, becoming the first sporting body to take the step in the East Asian country. Shuai has since reemerged, and in an interview claimed that “there’s been a lot of misunderstanding” and “I’ve always been very free”.
WTA, however, has refused to budge, unlike other leagues like NBA and EPL when their players have irked China. “We remain steadfast in our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern,” the body said in a statement.
“This is the lowest level of human potential that one can operate at.”
It was in 2020 that Azeem Rafiq, an Englishman of Pakistani origin, spoke up about the racism, harassment and bullying he faced during his time playing for Yorkshire. Reckoning came for the County club this season, as Rafiq detailed the discrimination in an emotional testimony to the UK Parliament, naming former England cricketers Gary Ballance, Alex Hales, Tim Bresnan and Michael Vaughan.
Closer home, the year began with Indian pacers Mohammed Siraj and Jasprit Bumrah receiving racist abuse from the stands during the Test match at Sydney Cricket Ground. India made a formal complaint on day three, and the next day Siraj took a stand and alerted the umpires to the abuse. Stand-in India captain Ajinkya Rahane said that it was “not acceptable at all” and “it should not happen anywhere in the world.”
But when bigotry reared its ugly head again, the last word was delivered by Indian captains. After Mohammad Shami suffered communal abuse following India’s 10-wicket defeat to Pakistan, Virat Kohli took a stand for his teammate.
“There’s a good reason why we are playing on the field and not some bunch of spineless people on social media that have no courage to actually speak to any individual in person. They hide behind their identities and go after people through social media, making fun of people and that has become a social entertainment in today’s world, which is so unfortunate and so sad to see,” Kohli said.
And when hockey player Vandana Kataria was subjected to casteist remarks after the Indian team’s semifinal exit in Tokyo, Rani Rampal lambasted the “shameful act”: “I just want to tell people to rise above casteism. Our religions are different, we come from different parts of the country but when we play, we play for the Indian flag.”