Society’s Pressure on Black Women Athletes
Picture this: You’re a young female athlete and the pinnacle of greatness within your field. You have spent your life dreaming of success and working to leave your mark. Where all your hard work, dedication and sacrifice will finally amount to something as you step onto the world’s greatest athletic stage. Throughout history, you’ve known the Olympics stand as a beacon of hope, uniting countries and cultures from all across our vivid mosaic of a globe through the celebration of completion and sporting, and you desperately want to be a part of it.
There is a suffocating amount of tension put on your shoulders to succeed. You MUST succeed. Failure is not an option as our society will praise you for your accomplishments yet chastise you for your shortcomings and failures. Not only must you be placed on a pedestal and treated as a machine, forced to continually perform at an unrealistically high level without regard to personal health or mental wellbeing, but you are also thrust into the spotlight, becoming the voice of the younger generations.
Millions of eyes watching you at every waking moment of your life, ready to scrutinize your every word and action, no matter how insignificant it may seem, all while being expected to represent your country, your people and your sport with infallible excellence. But no pressure, right?
Simone Biles. Over her extensive career, this powerhouse of a gymnast has twisted, vaulted and soared into America’s heart, becoming a household name and one of gymnastics’ most decorated Olympians.
She began making a name for herself in 2013 where she won her first U.S all around title. Following her victory, Biles went on to compete at World Championships, where she has now claimed 25 medals, 19 of them gold, more than any other gymnast in history.
After asserting her dominance in the gymnastics world, Biles led the U.S. gymnast team to triumph at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and went on to win three more golds and a bronze. All the while being one of the hundreds of gymnasts assaulted by Larry Nassar, who’s still on trial to this day.
With a growing collection of medals, world renown, and even namesake skills, the world was waiting in eager anticipation to see what the G.O.A.T was going to bring to the Tokyo Olympics. However, when Biles withdrew in the height of competition, due to emotional exhaustion that was hindering her ability to perform, the world collectively gasped, unable to comprehend the fact that a top athlete made the conscious choice to step away from the peak of an event, especially the Olympics.
And yet, in a way, it made perfect sense. Biles was saying “no” to the gargantuan pressures, both psychological and physically, that an event of such magnitude demands. In a variety of ways, she’s lucky. As a champion both on and off the floor, she has already proven her superior talents, supported by a lengthy history of accolades. She had the option of exit. But she wasn’t stepping down just because she could or “quitting” because things got hard. “There’s more to life than gymnastics,” Biles said to reporters after her withdraw as she placed mental health at the forefront of the conversation.
Of course while Biles normalized the topic, we cannot ignore the ignition to her flame: the four time-Grand Slam Champion and a force to be reckoned with, both and off the tennis court. Born on October 16th, 1997, Naomi Osaka was introduced to the sport of tennis by her father, who was inspired by Serena and Venus Williams to make Naomi and her elder sister Mari Osaka to follow in their footsteps and become the next greats in the courts.
Fast forward to 2018, and with a few titles under her belt, Naomi took what appeared to be the most pivotal steps onto the tennis court as she came face to face with tennis’ most decorated and recognizable icon and personal hero Serena Williams. And while most would cower under the weight of the superstar and her insurmountable legacy, Naomi rose to the occasion, surpassing Serena in the upset of all upsets, becoming the first woman of Asian descent to win a major title.
However, when all was said and done, celebration didn’t seem to be in the cards for the young tennis star, who suffered from severe bouts of anxiety and depression surrounding media interviews. The next month, she then withdrew from Wimbledon, earning both praise and harsh criticism for taking personal time before competing in the Tokyo Olympics, where she would carry the honor of lighting the Olympic Torch and make it to the third round of competition.
To combat the “controversy”, Osaka wrote an essay for TIME and discussed the pressure she felt to cite mental health as her reason for withdrawing.
“In any other line of work, you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here and there, so long as it’s not habitual,” Osaka wrote. “You wouldn’t have to divulge your most personal symptoms to your employer; there would likely be HR measures protecting at least some level of privacy. In my case, I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms — frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me. I do not wish that on anyone and hope that we can enact measures to protect athletes, especially the fragile ones.”
In addition, Naomi has addressed the unrealistic expectations forced upon her to be the sole representative of the entire athletic mental health community.
“I feel uncomfortable being the spokesperson or face of athlete mental health as it’s still so new to me and I don’t have all the answers,” said Osaka. I do hope that people can relate and understand it’s okay to not be okay, and it’s okay to talk about it. There are people who can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel.”
Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka he first and most likely not the last black female athletes who must continually push the narrative forward. The burdens placed on their shoulders is too great for a normal individual, let alone Olympic champions who have been pushing their limits from the moment they decided to embark on their athletic journey.
The “strong Black woman” archetype designates that Black women must be inhumanly resilient, independent and invulnerable. Because these women are strong, they’re also expected to never crumble under the unfathomable weight of the expectations set for them. So when they speak out and stand up for themselves, they’re perceived as problematic and polarizing figures disrupting sports culture. The sports industry has only even begun to recognize Black women athletes as leaders and symbols of resistance, and while this small step forwards is something to be celebrated, it is in no regards enough to rectify for their past actions of isolation and neglect.
They are living human beings not meant to exist for our entertainment. They are living, breathing human beings, who deserve a place at the table and to be treated with respect.
Olivia Celenza is a second-year exploratory major who loves watching the Olympics. She can be reached at [email protected].