Two of the world’s most prominent athletes are no longer bound for the tallest spot on the podium at the Tokyo Olympics. Tennis wunderkind Naomi Osaka, ranked No. 2 in the world, lost to Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, ranked No. 42, in a rattling upset. Simone Biles, by any measurement the world’s most accomplished gymnast, stumbled her way through the first rounds only to pull out of the women’s gymnastics final, citing a need to “focus on [her] mental health.” Osaka’s loss was a crushing blow to an already beleaguered Japan; Biles’s withdrawal opened the door for Russia to snag gold from the long-reigning US team.
The losses were heart-wrenching. They were unexpected. But they were not, as many have tried to suggest, an affront to the sport. How many more of these public meltdowns will it take for us to understand? These women do not owe us a win at the cost of their lives.
There’s a fascinating disassociation that happens when we adopt certain athletes as our figureheads and our trophies. When they are on top, we lounge on our couches and profess inauthentic patriotism. We scream at them to do better, go faster, try harder, even though we cannot do better ourselves. We project our deeply held beliefs—that, for example, America is the best nation—while, meanwhile, our country refuses to protect two women of color. And when these women dare to not disclose everything—when they refuse a press conference, when they step away from an event that is brutalizing their bodies and minds—we turn on them with a shocking viciousness, even smugness. Weak.
We think, because we cheer them on, because they are the beneficiaries of Uber Eats commercials or Nike endorsements, that women like Osaka and Biles must bifurcate their own existence. They must split into two entities: the athlete and the woman. The athlete must perform for our entertainment, volley and spring for our love, and she must be relentless in that pursuit. The woman can exist, but only as an idealized, cheerful caricature—the girlfriend or, perhaps, the daughter. They must excel at everything, even their personal relationships. We cannot glimpse at their weakness, lest it detract from our adoration. We do not want to see Serena Williams’s anger. We do not want to see the weight on Biles’s shoulders as she leaves the mat. We do not want to see Osaka at home, asking herself, “So what am I, if not a good tennis player?” Why give her the space to ask this question, when it’s one we seem to find so irrelevant?
I started analyzing this phenomenon in earnest after I saw several reviews for Naomi Osaka, the new Netflix docuseries directed by Time’s Garrett Bradley, which one critic said had “the feel of an extended public relations release.” In one episode, Osaka asks herself that desperate inquiry: If she cannot win, then who is she? If she is not the athlete, is there any room for the woman? And I was ashamed to find my own view of her had grown cynical. Because Osaka herself authorized the taping, it felt tainted. My instinct as a journalist is to be skeptical of any celebrity with control over their own narrative. After all, people with the power to shape their stories can lie.
And yet, there is an earnestness in watching the way Bradley’s camera moves over Osaka’s face, focusing on her emotions more than her forehands. In an interview about the show, I asked Bradley how she felt her direction differed from the media’s interpretation. “The press approaches athletes and public figures from one dimension,” she said. “And typically that’s through a series of questions that can then be brought out into the world. As a filmmaker, the films themselves need to honor the multiple dimensions that make up a person and their life and their journey. That isn’t something you can always do in a 10-minute interview.”
In journalism school, I was taught that the prime method for extracting the truth was through these sorts of interviews. But, reading the coverage of Osaka’s abrupt departure from the French Open, I realized the wisdom of Bradley’s words. So few of the press conferences that Osaka so badly wished to escape had actually shed light on her performance, far less her personhood. Instead, these questions had tortured her. When did suffering become our goal?
As social media’s influence has skyrocketed over the past few years, so has, it seems, our proclivity for projection. We watch Osaka step away from the microphone, and we read it as an assault on the media, as a failure of her duties, as a weakness for which a multimillion-dollar athlete should not be allowed. When she loses a match she was expected to win, we can afford her no empathy, as she has made us a laughingstock. As the New York Times reported, after Osaka’s loss on July 26, one commenter on Twitter wrote, “She conveniently became ‘depressed,’ conveniently healed, and was given the honor of being the final torchbearer. And then she loses an important game just like that. I can only say that she is making light of sports.”
The same can be said of Biles. When she pulls out of a competition for fear of injuring herself, as the pressure around her reaches a fever pitch none of us can comprehend, we call her a disappointment, a “quitter,” a “snowflake.”
We can pretend these women are at the top of the world. That, because they have reached the pinnacle of their sports, they can control everything around them. They can control their own stories, their own destinies. But these women do not have control over their own narratives, because we cannot allow them control over their own minds. We would never allow it. As our champions, they belong to us.
During our interview, Bradley observed something striking: “The world that we live in right now has so many different avenues to facilitate projection from other people onto other people. And that’s not something that I think anyone has control over. What one does have control over is their voice, and how they use it and when they want to use it.”
We think Osaka and Biles owe us a good show, no matter the personal cost, no matter how it strips them of their voice. As another Twitter commenter wrote, “A true champion endures, risks and sacrifices EVERYTHING to be #1.” But this is the great propaganda, the infectious untruth. These women actually owe us nothing. We own no right to their stories. A champion understands that to sacrifice everything is to lose everything. And what is the point of being a champion, if not to win?
They might appear in advertisements for brands we approve of, or play a sport about which we pretend to know everything, but these women do not bend to our whim. Osaka and Biles are not subhuman just because their bodies are superhuman. They are living women with interior lives so rich, we would weep if we knew them. Moreover, they are young women, still years away from the greatest adventures of their lives. If stepping away from the stage—and our ever-encroaching spotlight—is what they need to do to live another day, how can we possibly argue for anything else? Consider it the ultimate hypocrisy. As Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka exit, we only have ourselves to blame.
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