Naomi Osaka leapt into 2021 with the world at her feet, having won her fourth grand slam at the Australian Open in January and being anticipated to dominate the hard-court season, including a home Olympics in Tokyo in July.
She was unstoppable in her current form. After crashing out of the US Open in September and withdrawing from the French Open in June, seeing her cry through a press conference was a sign of the year’s unexpected and tragic nature.
“When I win, I don’t feel happy,” she declared in a speech that has had a lasting impact on sports. “It actually feels like a relief.” Then, when I lose, I’m devastated. “I don’t think it’s natural,” she remarked as tears welled up in her eyes, before announcing that she would be taking another leave from tennis.
Above and beyond trophies and medals, Osaka’s impact this year can be gauged by the discussion surrounding sport and mental health. It was now OK not to be OK, thanks to Michael Phelps, Ben Stokes, Simone Biles, and British diver Jack Laugher.
Osaka was chastised by critics after announcing her decision to decline media duties at Roland-Garros, and event organizers threatened her with sanctions. As the athletic world struggled to understand her stance, Osaka disclosed that she had been depressed for three years, which had led to her choice to avoid the spotlight.
She continued to play infrequently after that. But things had changed off the court. The floodgates were opened, and sport and mental health had become the year’s de facto topic. As athletes from all around the world agreed, Osaka had established a new normal: sport must occasionally take a back seat.
Following in the footsteps of the Japanese player, players stood in front of cameras and bared their souls, releasing previously suppressed emotions. On accepting her lifetime achievement award from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year ceremony this month, Biles remarked, “This summer, I had to take a step back from competition to recover from an invisible injury.” “It was the most difficult decision of my life, but I chose to speak out to show that mental illness is not anything to be embarrassed of.”
When the most decorated gymnast of all time was forced to withdraw from the bulk of her scheduled events at the Tokyo Olympics due to a mental block, her public confession of the private barriers she had been attempting to overcome won her enormous support.
Her boldness grabbed the headlines when she returned to the competition floor a week later and won a bronze medal on the balance beam. “I was expecting some criticism at first,” the 24-year-old reflected, “but what transpired was the polar opposite.” “The outpouring of love and encouragement was incredible, and it warms my heart to think about those kind comments.”
Simone Biles came back to win a bronze medal after an injury setback.
Women’s perceptions, in particular, had shifted, indicating a shift in popular sentiment. When men weep, studies have shown that they are treated better than women, especially in areas that are perceived as masculine, such as sports.
Sportswomen face a separate set of preconceptions, with tears signaling weakness, poor judgment, or simply being tough, as Paul Gascoigne’s or Andy Murray’s tears have been immortalised.
When you consider the pressure on every women’s sport competition to be “the perfect advertisement” for the sport, the stakes are much higher. Female athletes, who are already at a disadvantage due to finance and worldwide reach, have been afraid of upsetting the status quo or displaying weakness for fear of alienating the prospective fans they are expected to attract. Shaunagh Brown’s post-match talk at the Premier 15s final earlier this year, in which Harlequins stormed to their maiden league title, exemplified the emerging confidence in athletes to be more forthright in their message.
Brown choked up as she made her rallying cry at Kingsholm, saying, “This is not just about rugby, this is not just about the sport, it’s about women and women’s sport.” “It’s about placing us on a platform and knowing that we can do it, that we can come out and perform at an international level in front of people.” We’ve arrived, and I’d like to challenge anyone who believes women’s rugby or women in general aren’t good enough, because we are.”
Brown, or any female rugby player, had a rare opportunity to speak to a primetime television audience, and she took advantage of the euphoria of triumph to deliver her message. Women in sports who were under a lot of strain and expectation were shamelessly emotional for a variety of reasons.
Dina Asher-Smith, the reigning world champion in the 200 meters, had to withdraw from the Olympic competition because to an injury. Her candidness in her live trackside interview will be remembered for a long time. “We’ll give me a minute to cry,” she added, unapologetically.
As she took her last bow, paralympic swimmer Ellie Robinson’s post-race tears went viral. Despite returning empty-handed, the former Paralympic champion enthralled the nation with a passionate poolside monologue. “I don’t want this to be a story about grief and heartbreak,” she continued, tears welling up in her eyes. “I want this to be a story of success, because it is.” Despite the fact that my physical condition has deteriorated, and my hip is in critical condition, I believe I am mentally stronger than ever.”
In a moment when sport had taught them to withdraw, retiring quietly in pain, sportswomen spoke up, rejecting what is traditionally viewed as an acceptable response to adversity. Women in sport will shed tears in 2021, whether in triumph or defeat, anguish or pleasure. Their message was all the more powerful as a result.