BY MIKE MADODA
WHEN Naomi Osaka pulled out of Roland Garros, little did she know that her withdrawal would have a snowball effect that would thrust mental health firmly into the limelight.
Barbora Krejčíková defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova to win the French Open and take home the women’s title, but her triumph was overshadowed by the absence of the outstanding Naomi Osaka.
Osaka pulled out from the tournament having copped a fine for absconding on her media duties and refusing to entertain the press. She then gave Wimbledon a skip, also citing her ongoing mental health issues.
As the highest paid female athlete in the world, as well as the first Asian woman to top the worldwide rankings, she was a huge miss for both tournaments.
Osaka is not the first athlete to realise that the preservation of mental health should be high on the agenda for athletes. Her idol and fellow tennis star Serena Williams has spoken out about how anxiety caused her to lose games.
Tennis is a mental battle as much as a physical one, with players having to be in peak mental shape throughout the match, so it comes as no surprise that even a player as experienced as Williams could be thrown off by her mental health.
Her explosive rant at the umpire in the 2018 US Open final is the perfect illustration of the immense mental pressure that she was under.
Osaka did recover in time to light the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020 just a couple of weeks ago, but a better frame of mind wasn’t enough to prevent her making an early exit on home soil.
But her departure ushered in an even bigger discussion on the mental health of athletes as Simone Biles picked up the button that Osaka had run with in the preceding couple of months.
If Osaka’s crusade had been a snowball, the American gymnast was an absolute avalanche — her withdrawal from Olympics gymnastics events generating unprecedented public interest in mental health the world over.
With the Tokyo Games offering the ultimate platform for the topic to get global attention, with much of the world watching the same story, Biles sparked a bigger conversation about mental health than either Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah or Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open — both of which had generated significant international interest.
According to exclusive data from NewsWhip, in the week following Biles’ withdrawal from the team event, stories about her and mental health generated more than two million social media interactions (likes, comments, shares) — 25% higher than Meghan and Harry in the days following their interview.
Google searches about mental health spiked, hitting their highest level in more than two months. This past week alone, there have been more than 9 000 stories on Biles and mental health — double the coverage Osaka received two months ago, and four times more than at the peak of the Royal fallout.
Osaka, is probably the finest tennis player in the world when she is on her game, but she gave up her chance to win two Grand Slams to focus on her mental health. Biles, arguably the greatest gymnast the world has ever seen, chose to forgo the opportunity to add to her impressive gold medal haul from the last Olympics in Rio.
These two are the most recent examples but far from the only ones.
Most people will tell you that basketball icon Michael Jordan was the ultimate competitor — mentally tough and remarkably skilful, but look back at his first retirement: his father had been murdered, he lost his zest for the game and quit to play minor league baseball.
That there was a mental health break if there ever was one!
And even here in Zimbabwe, our athletes have not been spared.
The unfortunate cases of former Warriors star Shingi Kawondera, the fabulously talented Ngezi Platinum Stars attacker Denver Mukamba and the former Zimbabwe Cricket batsman Mark Vermeulen are well documented.
Sadly though, we concentrated our discussions around the effects of their mental health challenges rather than tackling the cause of their malaise.
Where we could have helped and prevented relapses, we chose to gossip, vilify and speculate.
Kawondera, it was alleged, was a victim of witchcraft, Mukamba was an unrepentant drug abuser and Vermeulen another angry white boy.
The truth is: our athletes have always had to deal with an insane amount of pressure on the field of play and also carry the burden off it, as they have not been spared the challenges of everyday life.
The last 18 months have only exacerbated the situation as it has not been an easy time for athletes across the board — with limited to no action and decreased earnings. And even in the good old times that preceded the Covid-19 pandemic, the physical and psychological demands of training and competing, the fear of injury and devastation when it does happen, long stints away from family and friends, along with the intense public and media scrutiny, are all factors that at times have led to the deteriorating mental health of our athletes.
Zimbabwe sport should encourage open dialogue, take a proactive approach to screening for mental illness and make treatment more accessible at all levels, across all sports.
It is high time our sports teams and associations realise that psychologists and psychiatrists are just as important as doctors and physiotherapists — that equally as important as a fit body, is a sound mind.
“We are not just athletes or entertainment — we are human, too, and we have real emotions,” Biles was quoted as saying.
“Sometimes people don’t realise that we have things going on behind the scenes that affect us whenever we go out and compete.”
The day we begin to understand this, is the day we begin to apply our minds to what is a pertinent issue, not just in America and Japan, but even here at home.
Follow Madoda on Twitter: @mikemadoda.