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Press to social media: the pressure of being an athlete in the spotlight

Competitive sports as they are, are a challenge of their own. Athletes removed from opponents, from the media, from the pressure of thousands of eyes watching your every move… mastering a discipline is difficult enough.

From a distance, we idolize sports stars whether from the bleachers or on a screen. But our growing digital practices continue to feed into a whirlwind of chaos that isn’t always a source of positivity for the athlete.

The pressures athletes deal with

The pressure for athletes of participating in competitions with an entire nation or the world rooting for them is something only those who have trained for world-level championships can know.

Shared experiences of the heights of glory and depths of pressure from athlete to athlete might be as far as relating goes.

The press opens doors that can perhaps bring us closer to those athletes we support and admire. Those we can be critical of only with the best of intentions. Because we care.

But the grandiosity of media today sometimes makes us quick to judge.

Making mistakes, making choices

The truth is it’s difficult to see those we cherish and support make compromising decisions or admit to being unwell.

As a result, we and the press often give ourselves an over-proportionate amount of importance in judging athletes’ behaviors and states of being.

When in fact, time after time, and in spite of consequences, athletes have often stood by their words and actions. One of the biggest challenges athletes face in competitive sports is dealing with their own mental health.

The outrage following Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension from the upcoming Olympics was in considerable part the result of social media backlash.

The debate that arose is very complex and with many implications. All of which were not initially sparked by the athlete herself. Not to take away value from the questions raised, but within the craze following such a turn of events, we sometimes forget one thing:

“Athletes are human.”

Naomi Osaka via Times Magazine

Naomi Osaka just spoke for Time Magazine in view of the upcoming Olympics for which she will be returning.

Following her refusal to attend a Roland Garros press conference for her personal wellbeing, the tennis player saw herself having to withdraw from the tournament.

Today, she addresses mental health as an athlete and is becoming the voice for many regarding that issue, reminding the world that “It’s O.K. not to be O.K.

Outdated and up for change

Earlier this week, the world-class runner Richardson admitted and apologized for her mistake, acknowledging the decision she made.

The difficulty in seeing a champion side-step urges us to find solutions and reasoning elsewhere. But just like each and every one of us, an athlete won’t be perfect and no one can require them to be.

There may be fights to be fought and changes to be made, but the easy access to media sometimes has us lose sight of what should be argued for the athlete’s sake rather than our own desire to respond to conflict.

In her piece for Time, Osaka calls for change in the tournament press system, thinking it to be outdated and lacking the humanity it needs. It seems humanity is the keyword we’re losing touch with through our society’s growing media forces.

Osaka suggests a more “peer to peer” rather than “subject to object” approach to the press-athlete relationship. While social media platforms are by nature designed for peer exchange, they have their toxic characteristics as well. The scrutiny over celebrities in general is an issue falling out of hand.

Coupled with the existing pressures of being an Olympic athlete, the spotlight exacerbates our expectations and further alienates individuals like Richardson. Let’s have a conversation with those athletes in consideration. But let’s remember, they’re human too.