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Because athletes are humans too

Last week was one of controversy on the international sports front with Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka backing out of the French Open citing mental health concerns.

Osaka, a four-time grand slam winner at the age of 23, took the decision to withdraw after she was fined US$15,000 for refusing to attend a news conference after her first-round victory. She had also planned to skip these conferences after each of her matches.

Osaka has seen fame and the brutal side effects that come with it at a very young age. But hers is a tale as old as time itself; oh well, at least as old as there has been an unreasonably high pressure from the public demanding answers and accountability.

Several other athletes have come forward in the past such as one of the most beloved Olympian Michael Phelps, gymnast Simone Biles and former Toronto Raptors all-star guard DeMar DeRozan. These athletes have proved that mental health issues don’t discriminate or care whether you are rich or poor, famous or not. Mental health issues don’t see gender or age nor do they come with the same set of reasons.

Time and time again, Osaka has said how she is an introvert, how she prefers to stay in her cocoon or her safe bubble before her matches to calm her nerves. But those in power, her fans, media, continue to demand her public presence. Many demand she fulfill her public commitments as she is a public figure. Why? Just because her job is one that ends up on an international platform?

“I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can,” she said in her statement.

And what’s so wrong with that? Not all of us are natural public speakers. Even I get anxious speaking to a huge crowd at times but that isn’t my job and neither is it hers. Why then is she expected to perform it? Why is she judged if she declines to engage publicly? After all, if any of this pressure gets to her and she doesn’t perform well in the tournaments, the world (her fans or followers) will be all set to crucify her, won’t they?

I remember when I was little, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar was revered and hailed as God for cricket-lovers in India. But the moment he would fail to fulfill his fans’ expectations, the day he wasn’t playing his best game, he would get called names, and in extreme cases his posters and effigies would get burnt.

What kind of inhuman expectations do fans hold in their hearts for their “favourite” sports players?

So many players have left mid-tournament due to physical issues in the past but when Osaka cited her health concerns, a major chunk of the world proved how we are still not ready to accept mental health issues as health issues. Sure there was immense support for Osaka’s decision but there were an equal or more number of people criticizing her move.

Somewhere between getting entertained and cheering on for our beloved sports stars, many have forgotten that these sports stars are not here to serve us.

Every time something like this happens and people set out to judge others or hold any pre-conceived notions, make assumptions, dismiss health concerns, I remember this quote from Robin Williams and I hope that here on out, you are reminded of it too — “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind.”

Priyanka Ketkar
Multimedia journalist

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