Full disclosure, I wasn’t even going to watch the Olympics this year.
I’d considered watching Track and Field just to see Sha’Carri Richardson literally run circles around her competition. But when she was disqualified for having THC in her system, it felt as though watching the Olympics wouldn’t be worth my time.
Until earlier this month, when Simone Biles stunned the world by becoming the first woman to nail the new triple-double (which I understand will soon be called the Biles II). I was hooked. In just a matter of seconds, Biles had changed me from someone who might watch an Olympic event (if there was nothing else on) to a 2021 summer Olympics fan.
So when I heard that she had pulled out of the first event that I was all excited to watch, I was like, “What the fu … ?”
At first, this sentiment seemed to be echoed by most of the people I follow on social media. But then within an hour, other posts appeared, posts applauding Biles for her decision to take care of herself. Once I understood what she’d done, my dismay was instantly eclipsed by a swell of emotion.
Suddenly the magnitude of the risk she’d taken to administer self-care came into strikingly crisp focus, and everything else faded into the background. Simone Biles, a young Black woman, a survivor of the foster care system, a survivor of years of sexual abuse, the woman who volunteered to be a participant in the reckoning for that abuser during his trial, the woman who took our collective breath away when she won medals with injuries that would have sidelined anyone else.
Simone Biles was saying, “No. I’m not going to push myself any further. And while it may be inconvenient timing, I’m out. I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself.”
And oh, did I mention that she’s Black?
It’s a fact worth underscoring as our nation’s health care system has a terrible track record when it comes to treating our communities of color, especially women.
Why is it so hard for us to accept that our athletes are human? Why do we as a society place so much value on them pushing themselves through injuries, mental and physical?
And it gets even worse when we’re talking about mental health. Add to that the fact that one study shows that 63% of Black people don’t “believe in” mental illness, dismissing it as a weakness or something on which white people spend their time and money. Many Black people are ashamed about having a mental illness and worry that they may be judged or discriminated against.
After my sons were born, I struggled with postpartum depression, and I kept it to myself. When I thought about confessing what was happening to my husband or to my friends, fear conspired with pride to keep me silent.
And in my friend groups where I was the only Black one, I felt an extra incentive to be close-lipped. I didn’t want anyone conflating my race with whatever this was ― this defectiveness. I was determined to represent strong, Black women proudly.
I tried my best to serve everyone ultimate wife/mom perfection, to be above the fray. The terror of being pitied or judged loomed larger than my instinct to preserve myself.
The truth was that I was embarrassed to be struggling with my mental health. I was scared to ask for help because people might label me as yet another weak, crazy Black female. I didn’t know it was possible to survive something like that. I had no Black role model who’d come before me to say, “I’m going to step away and take care of myself, and I don’t give a shit what people have to say about it.”
Citing “mental health issues,” Naomi Osaka, ranked No. 2 in the world in women’s tennis, refused to speak to the press during the French Open this past May. Shortly afterward, she was fined and threatened with expulsion by the tournament organizers. And later (in a now-deleted tweet), she was mocked by the tournament organizer’s Twitter account.
Famously shy and soft-spoken, Osaka revealed that she had been dealing with anxiety and depression since bursting into the limelight by winning the U.S. Open in 2018, the first of her four Grand Slam titles.
And when Osaka subsequently withdrew from the French Open, and then a few weeks later, Wimbledon, She released a statement through her agent. A statement which read in part, “Naomi won’t be playing Wimbledon this year. She is taking some personal time with friends and family.”
I can’t imagine what it must be like, to be a woman of color who has trained all of her life for a chance to play on those courts or in those stadiums. I can’t picture what it would be like to have talent like that, to have the eyes of the world on you, and then to say, “No, I will not wait until this event is over, I won’t wait a few more weeks. I won’t wait another hour ― I am administering self-care right NOW.”
Why is it so hard for us to accept that our athletes are human? Why do we as a society place so much value on them pushing themselves through injuries, mental and physical? Michael Jordan was lauded after playing through the stomach flu in the 1995 NBA finals and bringing The Bulls to victory. The late Kobe Bryant received cheers and chest bumps after receiving four bags of IV fluids (two before the game and two at halftime) during Game 6 against the Denver Nuggets in 2012. These Black men were and are revered for being warriors, for playing through the pain and illness in order to win.
But for women of color in the Olympic Games, there is an additional expectation, for they have always carried a triple cross of race, gender and athlete. Black women throughout American history have been objectified like no other category of people, and we’ve never had a credible voice in our society. Remember how when Serena Williams won the French Open in 2015, and someone on social media called her a “gorilla”?
Black female athletes are expected to be strong but not aggressive and tough without looking masculine (whatever that means) — and don’t get me started on the white, American standard of beauty imposed upon us. Remember all of the criticism Gabby Douglas got about her hair after being the first Black female gymnast to win an all-around Olympic gold medal?
I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that both Biles and Osaka stole the Olympic headlines on the same day during BIPOC Mental Health Month (Biles withdrew from her event, and Naomi lost her match). But I hope that their courageous actions will have a long-lasting impact, not just on The Olympics but also on society.
The image I’ll keep of Osaka from the Tokyo Olympics is not her loss to Marketa Vonderousova in the third round, but of her giving us all the feels as she lit the Olympic torch during the opening ceremonies. And the pictures I’ll keep of Biles are the ones of her urging her girls to go on to victory and cheering the men’s Olympic Team on during a practice.
By taking a stand, Naomi built a platform on which she could finally speak freely about her mental health, and now Simone Biles has bravely stepped onto that same platform and said, “Me too.”
Both of these young Black female athletes understand something that I didn’t when I was still grappling with how to save both my face and my ass. They understand that safeguarding their mental health isn’t quitting, nor is it a sign of weakness. They know that mental health has to come before the sport(s) they love, before the medals and the trophies they want to win. And for that, Biles and Osaka will always be champions in my book.
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