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Mental Health

2021: From Biles to Djokovic — the year that saw athletes become 'human'

Shattering constructs of being an 'ideal athlete', 2021 saw the likes of Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Virat Kohli display emotions and showcase their vulnerable sides.

Simone Biles breaks down during the Tokyo Olympics and Novak Djokovic crumbles into tears at the 2021 US Open

Simone Biles breaks down during the Tokyo Olympics (left) and Novak Djokovic crumbles into tears at the 2021 US Open 



Updated: 29 Dec 2021 6:35 AM GMT

If we are to ask you what's the first word that crosses your mind when you hear the word 'athlete', the chances are that most of you will tend to blurt out - 'medal', 'champion', 'win', 'strong', 'invincible' or name your favourite sportspeople who embody such characteristics. Unfortunately, the construct of the athlete is so deep-rooted that we are almost conditioned to always see them in a particular, idolized idealistic light - that chips away from their existing 'human' side and instead attaches a demi-god-like, infallible aura to them.

In many ways, 2021 was a revolution to change this one-word definition as athletes took bold steps that steered them away from such restrictive ideals and instead, placed them in a more humanizing light. The fact that being an athlete, especially at the elite level, comes with more tasks than just going out there and performing - was reminded time and again by the likes of Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles as mental health circled back as a pressing topic.

Away from this necessity to be 'invincible', athletes joined the conversation on how 'It's O.K to not be O.K' - revealing their emotional, vulnerable and most importantly, their human side - which begged us to re-think the definitions while they pulled at our heartstrings, not with their athletic feats but simply because of who they are, as human beings.

Naomi Osaka (Source: Getty)

Inviting controversy and a lot of clamour with her decision, Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from the 2021 French Open after playing just one match burst open the discussion on the importance of mental health of athletes. Osaka had been fined $15,000 and threatened to be expelled from the clay-court Grand Slam after the 4-time Grand Slam champion asked to be left out of press interactions citing reasons of mental health. Taking to her social media to make the announcement and make it known that she has been depressed ever since her 2018 US Open victory, Osaka's little-big step set the ball rolling to humanize the athlete.

Osaka not only sat out the French Open but also the Wimbledon and only returned at the Tokyo Olympics. Normalising the need to take 'mental health breaks' especially in sports at the elite level - where too many eyes and fingers point to you and too many lips - ready to decide, dissect and determine trajectories of the athlete's own narrative. Osaka's step sparked off a revolution as athletes began speaking up about their own struggles - each account helping in the definition being changed.

Simone Biles (Source: Reuters)

If Naomi Osaka had set the tennis world aflutter with her decision to prioritize mental health, GOAT gymnast Simone Biles' decision to not participate in the finals of the women's team event and not defend her individual all-around gold left many shocked. Biles, who scripted gymnastics history at the 2016 Rio Olympics when she won 4 gold medals and a bronze, was expected to grow her legend and get gold in all the five individual events on offer.

But Biles decided to value her own mental health more than the pursuit of a medal when she decided to pull out of the gymnastics events citing a case of twisties - where a gymnast loses air balance awareness temporarily.

While a lot of critics, as is nature, hit out at her for taking such a big step at the stage of the Olympics, most supported the athlete's need to take care of her mental health as well and not put it secondary to that of winning a piece of metal.

Lionel Messi (Source: Reuters)

It was the 8th of August, 2021. A day far too precious and now indelible from the pages of football history as Lionel Messi bid adieu to the club that played the lion's share role in carving out his legend - FC Barcelona. Bringing a 21-year-old stint with the club to an end, Lionel Messi broke down while making the announcement.

The club's top goalscorer with 682 goals to his name, Lionel Messi stood for Barcelona synonymously and the departure of Messi from Barca not only had the star footballer breaking down on-stage, showing how deeply attached he was to the club, but also toyed with our own heartstrings, making us all cry for this great shift.

Tom Daley at the Tokyo Olympics (Source: Getty)

British diver and 4-time Olympic medallist Tom Daley, in a recent video released on Christmas day for Britain's Channel 4 opened up on his struggles with mental health and talked about how powerful a step it was that Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka took with their stances to prioritize mental health. The gold medallist diver from the Tokyo Games, Daley was seen crying from behind his mask when the gold was awarded to him at Tokyo.

"We don't traditionally talk about stuff like that (mental health) in sport. We're not supposed to do fear," Daley mentions in the video.

During Tokyo, Daley, a gay athlete married to Dustin Lance Black, was also seen knitting during the competition - an activity he claims to have taken up to battle his mental health toils, especially because of his status as a gay athlete.

Showcasing his emotional and all-too-human side, Daley pleaded with more athletes to come out and not live in fear of their own sexuality, especially in sports, provoking discussion on another less-discussed matter in this realm.

Novak Djokovic (Source: AP)

In common parlance, Novak Djokovic, the 20-time Grand Slam champion who is leading the GOAT race in tennis, is usually seen as a machine. And, why not? His unbelievable mental grit and stamina are by far the best the game of tennis has ever seen and when he is out there on the court - be it clay, hard or grass, Djokovic is usually a man on a mission that dictates to him - Go, demolish. And that's what he does - changing losses to victories or simply steamrolling past his opponents, so much so that he has the nickname of being The Nole Machine. Yet, 2021 saw a whole new side of the machine - the terminator who showed emotions.

Given his machine-like demeanour, Djokovic has never been a fan favourite - not the way fans would swoon for a Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal at least. However, at the US Open 2021, the Djoker was chasing history - a Calendar Slam beckoned and only Daniil Medvedev stood in the path of that history. Yet, Djokovic, whose record in Grand Slam finals is top-notch, lost in straight-sets, the history slipping out from his fingers and the tears too slipped from his eyes.

In the last changeover before what was to be the final game of the match, Djokovic sat down and buried his face in the towel - desperately trying to hide the tears that wouldn't stop flowing as he nearly choked on them. You ask why? It wasn't because he was losing - it was instead because the crowd, usually so anti him, was roaring and cheering for him and it was a first for Nole - who broke down, vulnerably.

"So many different emotions," Djokovic said after the final, explaining his mid-match tears. "Of course, part of me is very sad. It's a tough one to swallow, this loss, I mean, considering everything that was on the line. But on the other hand, I felt something I never felt in my life here in New York… that's the reason on the changeover I just teared up. The emotion, the energy was so strong."
Virat Kohli (Source: Reuters)

Closer home, former Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli was left agitated and disturbed when the BCCI did not aptly communicate their decision to remove him as the ODI captain. Expected to toe the line and not create much hullabaloo, the former Indian team skipper did the opposite and spoke up about the lack of communication that pervades within the BCCI in an explosive press conference in December 2021. Refuting strongly the BCCI President's statement that declared otherwise, Virat Kohli's words created quite the stir and has invited a lot of glares on the administrative section of Indian cricket.

"Whatever was said about the communication that happened about the decision that was made was inaccurate," Kohli said with obvious reference to BCCI President Sourav Ganguly's statement.

In retrospect then, 2021 has seen a real tussle where athletes have stepped out of their 'ideal' roles and displayed their emotional, vulnerable and human sides that refuse to be boxed into the mould that has been constructed for an 'athlete'. Making strong and powerful statements with their actions, the likes of Naomi Osaka, Lionel Messi and Virat Kohli have only helped shatter the invincible, demigod-like nature we tend to attribute to them - showing how before everything, before any of their athletic greatness, they too are just humans, toyed by the same forces of time and tide-like every one of us and not a different, unique entity to be mistakenly assumed for.

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