Was 2022 the year of athlete vulnerability?

    Last week The New Yorker brought out the article “The Rise of Celebrity Vulnerability”, citing the recent Netflix documentaries around the mental health struggles of Hollywood stars Selena Gomez and Jonah Hill.

    While mental health is by no means a new phenomenon, its prevalence in mainstream media and public discourse could be described as du jour.

    Has the rise of celebrity vulnerability allowed athletes to air out their own?

    2021 set the stage

    Last year tennis sensation Naomi Osaka, ranked No.2 at the time, sent the tennis world into shock when she announced over social media that she would not participate in the mandatory media interviews and press conferences in the lead-up to the French Open.

    Osaka justified her decision, writing: “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.”

    She was subsequently issued a $15,000 fine for choosing not to honour her contractual obligations.

    Osaka later withdrew from the tournament entirely, stating: “I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 […] 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 and engage and give you the best answers I can.”

    Naomi Osaka (Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images)

    A few months later, Simone Biles – lauded as the most decorated gymnast in the world and greatest in history – withdrew from the team final whilst competing at the Tokyo Olympics.

    In a press conference held after her withdrawal, Biles repeatedly mentioned how stressful the year, the day, the event has been for her and her teammates and that mentally she was not well-equipped enough to deal with it. She references Naomi Osaka at one point, saying: “I say, put your mental health first, because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport.”

    Time named Simone Biles “Athlete of the Year” at the end of 2021, affirming that while Naomi Osaka may have started a broader cultural conversation on mental health, Biles raised the volume on it.

    2022 widened the scope

    2021 brought the mental health of the world’s top athletes to the fore. This made for fertile ground, in which more nuanced conversations on the mental health of all athletes, everywhere, could be sown.

    No longer can we ignore the psychological toll of competing on an athlete, even if it is part of their job description. Well-being, as told by Biles, goes beyond the scope of nutrition, training and sleep – no matter how regimented these may be. Athletes, as demonstrated by Osaka, are human too.

    And crucially, all athletes, everywhere are vulnerable – just like the rest of us.

    At this year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Australia’s own footballer Josh Cavallo freely voiced his disappointment that players would be penalised for wearing rainbow-coloured OneLove armbands that promote inclusion and diversity. Cavallo came out openly last year, announcing “I’m gay and I’m a footballer” over Twitter – the first professional male footballer to publicly do so.

    FIFA’s decision to issue yellow cards to any captains who chose to wear the armbands prompted Cavallo to declare, “FIFA, you have lost my respect. The attacks on the LGBTQ+ community from World Cup leaders affect so many who live in silence because of your draconian ways.”

    Joshua Cavallo (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

    Athletes speaking out against the institutions and organisations that offer them opportunities but compromise them personally is a sign of empowerment – one that feels important when seen through the lens of an athlete’s well-being. It may be a privilege to have personal convictions but being unable to protect them is a vulnerability.

    When WNBA player Brittney Griner was released and returned to the US earlier this month after a 10-month detainment in Russia following drug charges, there was much discussion as to what the value of an athlete really is.

    Griner was arrested on charges of possessing and smuggling cannabis and sentenced to nine years in prison by Russian authorities. She was eventually released when the Biden administration stepped in and agreed with the Russian government on a one-for-one prisoner exchange.

    The case of Brittney Griner brought to light two things. Firstly, that you can be a seven-time All Star and a full-time athlete representing your country but none of these things will make you immune to life’s turns nor exempt you from hardship.

    Secondly, rather than protect you, being an athlete – no matter the scale of prominence – will invite attention and speculation. Although it may have won Griner the intervention of the US government, it also worked against her, becoming a tool at best and at worst, news-cycle fodder.

    More to come in 2023?

    Looking back at this year, acknowledging and embracing the athlete as a whole and complete human may be a step forward. As much as we applaud performance, it feels timely to acknowledge the vulnerability underlying it – making both all the more deserving of celebration.

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