Prioritizing the People Behind the Medals

Most people play a sport. No matter the specific sport, we all (or at least most of us) love to play it. Do I play tennis to go pro? Not at all, but I’m dedicated to my sport and will try my hardest to get as far as I can with it. By no means am I training hard enough and being pressured to go to the Olympics or to win any Grand Slams, but I do know the crushing pressure I feel in tournaments for many reasons, and I think a lot of us have felt this feeling too. Now, take a look at this through an Olympian or professional athlete’s eyes. As they spend weeks, months, and years at a time working their hardest to represent their country at the Olympics, the burdening pressure of success becomes far more prevalent. But when we watch these athletes with high expectations and see them merely as a component to winning for our country, rather than the humans that they are, we are, in a way, dehumanizing them.

Take Simone Biles at the 2020 Summer Olympic Game in Tokyo. Biles went into the Olympics known as the greatest gymnast in the world. Previously the women’s all-around gymnastics winner in Rio 2016, people anticipated her participation in Tokyo 2020, and had high expectations of her to, once again, take home the title for the US. On July 28, 2021, it was announced that Biles was withdrawing from the individual all-around event. As many audience members, including myself, were confused as to why their favorite wasn’t participating, Biles revealed that she had pulled out of the competition due to mental health reasons. Biles experienced the “twisties,” and she claimed that she couldn’t tell where she was in relation to the ground and that she felt somewhat disassociated from her body as she was flying through the air. Her choice to withdraw caused an uproar of both positivity and negativity within the US. Some applauded Biles for focusing on her well-being over winning a competition and called her brave, but others failed to see her bravery. They claimed she was selfish, let her team down, and was a quitter

Biles had every right to pull out of the competition to regather herself and get back in the right headspace. After all, she should prioritize herself over anything else. Yet many audience members didn’t agree with this. Many view Biles as the greatest gymnast of all time, but to what extent does their sometimes burdening support, be detrimental to her mental health? As some continue to view Biles as merely a tool in order to gain more national pride and gold medals, they are taking away from the fact that she is a human, who has dedicated her whole life to being a gymnast and doing what she loves. She chose to do gymnastics and has every right to choose what she does with her life within that.

Similar to the way Biles was criticized, Zhu (Beverly) Yi, an up-and-coming figure skater, participated in her first Olympics in 2022. She was taken from the US team and in 2018, gave up her US citizenship to represent Team China. Before even arriving at the Olympics, Zhu received a lot of criticism for not being “Chinese enough”. She was ridiculed for not being able to speak Chinese and for being born in America. People considered her to be unqualified for the team because of her father’s connections with the government, and people speculated that she was handed a spot on the coveted team because of this. Many claimed she was a position-stealer. 

In the women’s short program team figure skating, her Olympic debut, Zhu fell. She then competed in the women’s free skate, and fell two more times, pushing team China out of placing. As well as it being her Olympic debut, Zhu already had the pressure of feeling the need to prove herself to all of China. After both events, Zhu received immense amounts of hate from China all over Weibo, one of the biggest social media platforms in China. They called her disgraceful, trended hashtags like “#ZhuYiFellDown,” and claimed she had let the team, and all of China, down. While getting attacked for falling down, she was also being attacked for her identity. Think about this: a 19-year old girl was being unwarrantedly harassed throughout the entirety of her Olympic experience, while simultaneously having to bear the pressures of the world’s expectations on her. Many Chinese people were angry that because of Zhu, they didn’t place, but just like Biles, they saw her as a tool simply to earn more medals. In their dehumanizing eyes, she is someone who let her whole country down and is a failure, merely for participating in a sport she loves and trying her hardest. As viewers begin to consider athletes as machines, their happiness and true love for their sport get stripped from them.

As much as I love watching the Olympics and cheering for my favorite athletes, the extent to which people pressure and harass these same athletes when they don’t win is concerning. Training almost their whole lives for the Olympics is already extremely difficult. Upon making it, having to continuously please their audience while also being beaten down by them, becomes painstaking. Biles and Zhu were dehumanized and seen as non-stop working utensils for essentially, doing what they love. We should always allow, without question, athletes to take a step back and prioritize themselves over pleasing their fans. After all, without them, what’s the point of watching?