As it stands, we’re about halfway through the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, an event I had no idea was coming and to be fair, do not care about. If anything, they give me unwelcome flashbacks to being extremely bad at high school discus. (Why did we have to do that?). But if there’s one thing that’s sparked my attention during this year’s reincarnation of this tired Grecian ritual is the athletes who have decided it’s all too much and simply cut and run.
I’m of course talking of tennis player Naomi Osaka, basketballer Liz Cambage and most recently, gymnast Simone Biles, all of whom happen to be Black women who have exited huge sporting events to prioritise their mental health.
I would like to unapologetically declare that I love this development. Not that these women are struggling with their mental health, of course. But that they’ve felt able to exit the process instead of destroying themselves to finish something that, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t matter. “It’s been a long week. It’s been a long Olympic process”, an audibly done-for Simone Biles said in a crowded press conference after announcing her exit. “It’s been a long year”.
We live in a culture that celebrates pushing ourselves to the brink. Women in particular are drowning in hustle culture, in motivational catchcries like “nevertheless, she persisted” and the strange spectre of the #girlboss, all while being assured we can “have it all”. (Sounds exhausting, tbh.)
It makes sense that we’re pushed to excel. Women are collectively trying to make up for literal centuries of oppression and exclusion from achievement. In the case of Black women, that oppression was even more stark. Ambitious women, especially women of colour, are routinely denigrated as “too loud”, “opinionated” or “bossy”, labels that work to keep us in our place. Not to mention having to deal with the relentless racism and hyperscrutiny that comes with being a Black woman. More than anyone, Black women are encouraged to persevere, to ignore the haters and to push through.
But if you’re in a situation that’s drumming up so much pressure that it’s making us break down, that is rousing your demons, then should you really have to put up with it for the sake of ‘winning’? In opting to walk away from the most prestigious sporting events in the world, these already extremely-accomplished women have made their answers abundantly clear: nope.
Hopefully, the refusal of Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles and Liz Cambage to prioritise achievement over their mental health reflects a broader cultural shift. A reminder that if something is not serving you, even if it’s the bloody Olympic Games, you can always just walk away. Even then, the earth doesn’t stop spinning. So let’s keep this energy going. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be able to get some rest.
Words by Reena Gupta, a Melbourne-based writer for MTV Australia. Follow her on Twitter @purpletank.