Mental Health on the Global Stage: Lessons from 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Photo Illustration: Brendan Lynch, Axios ; Photo: Naomi Baker,Getty Images


Media has played the largest role in influencing how audiences think and absorb news, especially for cultural defining events like the OlympicsThis year’s media coverage of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics took an unexpected spin on the traditional political comparison rhetoric by instead placing mental health on the podium. 

Former U.S. Olympians like Serena Williams, Raven Saunders and Aly Raisman have expressed the importance of amplifying mental health messages in sports and on the world stage in the past. “I felt when I was competing, my whole worth was revolved around how I competed at the Olympics. I would love to see more programs in place to help athletes know they are more than just their sport,” Raisman, U.S. gymnast and Olympian, said in an article James Pollard wrote for NBC Sports. 

“I would love to see more programs in place to help athletes know they are more than just their sport.”

Saunders, U.S. track and field athlete and Olympian, opened up to NBC about her 2018 breakdown, adding that navigating life as a Black, queer woman added to the stress of athletic performance. She entered a period of depression and suicide ideation. “I would base my self-worth and how good I was as a person on how I was doing in track,” she said. “When I ended up not having a good World Championship meet, it sent me further into that hole. I knew I was drained, but I still tried to push through. But it wasn’t for me; it was for a lot of people I felt like I owed.”  

These stories were largely silenced until U.S. Gymnast Simone Biles bravely took a step back at the beginning of the gymnastic competitions at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Ranked as the most decorated American gymnast, Biles receives global attention for holding this title along with an expectancy to perform perfectly. In addition to this accomplishment, Biles was a victim of sexual abuse from former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Balancing her relationship with gymnastics, a sport that has brought joy and hurt to her, is a big weight to carry. The media applies more pressure by titling Biles as the “greatest of all time”; masking her and athletes alike, allowing audiences to view Olympians as spectacles. “We’re human, too. We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,” said Biles during a post-event press conference.

“We’re human, too. We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

“Anxiety can affect performance by triggering what’s known as an amygdala hijack,” said sports psychologist Josie Pery in an article for Wired. “The primitive parts of the brain short-circuit, bypassing more rational areas and flooding the body with stress hormones. This can lead to a fight, flight, or freeze response—athletes may panic and make bad decisions, or may focus too much on skills that should be easy and automatic. But as well as affecting their performance, anxiety also exerts an emotional toll—and that’s finally starting to be recognized as the pandemic has pushed underlying issues to the fore.”

Naomi Osaka, a professional tennis player and Olympian, experienced anxieties from another catalyst: the media. “I have always enjoyed an amazing relationship with the media and have given numerous in-depth, one-on-one interviews. The way I see it, the reliance and respect from athlete to press is reciprocal… Perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny on a rare occasion without being subject to strict sanctions,” wrote Osaka in her article for Times Magazine. 

Other athletes have expressed similar sentiments. “I think people maybe feel bad for me that I’m not winning everything,” a teary Katie Ledecky, U.S. swimmer and Olympian, shared in an article for the Wall Street Journal. “But I want people to be concerned about other things that are going on in the world, people that are truly suffering.”

The pressure extends further to the athletes representing the host country. Japan’s Olympians are experiencing performance anxiety in addition to the politics behind the Games being hosted in Tokyo and how Japan is handling the pandemic. “Not all the pressure is bad, but as a culture, Japanese people expect that individuals can accomplish everything, and perfectionism is seen as a beauty; so as a culture, we expect and praise individuals who are able to succeed all on their own without any help,” said Masami Horikawa, a sports psychology researcher at the Kwansei Gakuin University, in an article for The Washington Post. 

During these games, we are seeing these discussions with more support and sportsmanship between countries. This year’s Olympians and Paralympians have made something evident — they are human.