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Are We Too Obsessed With Sport?

The world is obsessed with sport. 5 billion people engaged in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, with the final between France and Argentina achieving viewership of 1.5 billion. The Super Bowl LVII in which the Kansas City Chiefs came from behind to beat the Philadelphia Eagles totalled more than 113 million viewers. And the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics reached a global broadcast audience of more than three billion people. When it comes to sport, we can’t get enough.

Sport creates millions of jobs, serves as a topic of conversation for millions of people every day and regularly creates heroes and role models for the younger generation. But alongside the incredible success of the global sporting industry, there’s a dark side. From a very young age children are forced to practice for hours on end to attain success in a sport that they have little interest in. These ‘trophy kids’ labour away at drills and exercises imposed upon them by parents who seemingly have an insatiable desire for vicarious success through their children. Some recount how there is no other aspect to life other than sports, such as Michael Phelps, arguably the greatest Olympian of all time, who’s life was swimming, sleeping and eating 8,000 – 10,000 calories a day.

The intense competition and the never-ending pressure to succeed pushes people to obtain an edge, resulting in a plethora of doping scandals. With millions of dollars on the line, corruption seeps its way into and becomes a normalised aspect of many sports. And then there are the life-changing injuries such as neurodegeneration of the brain due to repeated trauma. At what point do we take stock and realise things are getting out of hand?

Woman exhausted after a hard training session at the gym.
The obsession with sporting success can be detrimental to health

In the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, professional gymnast Simone Biles, probably the best to ever do it, withdrew from the final individual all-around competition in order to focus on her mental health. The decision was a refreshing change from the must-win-at-any-cost mentality that pervaded sport before then and continues to do so today. As Biles mentioned, it “just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”

Despite many people feeling it was a brave decision by Biles, the criticism flooded in. Some accused her of pulling out of the competition because she knew she wasn’t on proper form to win a gold medal. Others said that she’d set a bad example. When the going gets tough, the tough get going quit!? Comparisons were also made between Simone Biles and Kerri Strug, a former US Olympian gymnast who competed in immense pain at the Atlanta 1996 Games to win a gold medal.

Despite the criticism and comparisons with Strug, Strug herself expressed her support for Biles. The comparisons also had another effect, causing people to rethink the heroic moment in which Strug decided to take another shot at the vault despite her injury. Should she have done it? Was it correct that her coach told her she had to go one more time, trading bodily destruction for Olympic victory? Were viewers more interested in witnessing greatness in exchange for ignoring the image of a terrified girl being pushed to compete when she was in acute pain?

Kerri Strug tweet in support of Simone Biles after Biles withdrew from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics due to mental health.
Kerri Strug expressed her support for Simon Biles after she withdrew from competition.

Ultimately while a coach or trainer may know their athletes very well, it’s the athletes who know themselves best. On 20th October 2000, Andrew Golota, a Polish professional boxer standing 6’5 and weighing 250 pounds, entered the ring to face Iron Mike Tyson in a bout billed as the Showdown in Motown. Within the first round Golota had taken some heavy shots, had a cut above his left eye and had been knocked down. As he sat on his stool before the second round, he told his trainer to stop the fight. His trainer, Al Certo, refused and encouraged him to go on.

Andrew Golota had survived round 2 but before the start of the third, he’d had enough. Golota didn’t want to continue. His cornermen berated him, threatened him and tried to force his mouthguard into his mouth. As Golota walked away from the ring the crowd booed him and pelted him with bottles and cups. Commentators described it as an “outrageous display of cowardice” and Golota was was condescendingly asked about the fans he had let down.

It later transpired that Golota had received a concussion, herniated disc and a fractured cheekbone. It’s of course speculation what could have happened if he’d been forced to continue, but the extent of his injuries before the 3rd round lends weight to him making the correct decision.

Poster for Mike Tyson vs Andrew Golota
Mike Tyson vs Andrew Golota took place on 20th October 2000.

In a similar vein, many people believe Simone Bile’s decision to withdraw from the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics was the right decision. For many athletes their identities revolve around their chosen sport and their accomplishments. This is understandable given the hours of intense training every day, every week for years on end. They’ve sacrificed too much for it to not be a priority.

Getting to the elite level of any sport requires a degree of obsession in which health and wellbeing are often secondary considerations. And so Simone Bile’s belief that “there’s still more to life than gymnastics” was seen as a mature approach to something she’d prioritised her entire life.

Ultimately the decision not to compete was empowering, not just for her, but also for others looking up to her. Wellbeing and health over medals was the message. It was a decision Simone Biles made, not one that was made for her. Often the Olympics is described as an event that inspires the next generation, and by choosing not to compete, perhaps she inspired millions more than if she’d kept going.

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