THere are so many worn quotes about exercise and pressure. Pressure makes diamonds. Pressure is for tires. The greatest pressure is the pressure we put on ourselves. People often say that clichés exist because they are true. Often they are also nonsense.
But there has never been so much sporting pressure. Or just a common public space as we have it now: endlessly hostile, endlessly devout, ceaselessly present.
Keith Miller famously said that pressure is a Messerschmitt up the ass. The point is, if you fought in a world war, pressure in the 1950s doesn’t play test cricket. Well, Keith, the world has changed. And with that we seem to have created a very special 24-hour hell for our superstar athletes.
Sometimes this can look like some kind of unregulated social experiment. Always be brilliant. Give us the thing we long for. And yes, you will be judged. They are diced and dissected down to the smallest detail. You are asked to bear our hopes and fears, to embody our politics, to mean something and to become a kind of commodity here too. That is not sustainable.
Naomi Osaka has already told us if we want to listen. Anyone can lose a tennis match, especially an Olympic tennis match at the end of a strange, incoherent schedule during a strange, incoherent period in the life of planet Earth. She was gracious in losing to number 42 in the world, Marketa Vondrousova.
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When asked if pressure was part of it, she had the self-control to avoid giving a straight answer. What words do you really want from me? How many billions of people are hanging on to the nuances of my answer in real time? What space have we created here? All of these could have been reasonable answers.
Osaka, who knows this world better than anyone because it is their world, finally said, “Yes and no.” She suggested that her recent mental hiatus had not improved her performance. The question answers itself. Here is a young tennis player who has taken a mental break, partly to avoid painful questions, who now answers painful questions about her mental break.
Vondrousova spoke more clearly: “I cannot imagine this pressure. She is the face of the Olympic Games. ”Just like Simone Biles, who also took a moment to take a deep breath. Biles is a four-time Olympic champion and as tough a competitor as possible. No one comes close to her level, let alone the added barriers she had to overcome without being both.
But Biles took a break on Tuesday, and did so with decency. She didn’t have to. She no longer owes us grace. She has already given a lot. There really doesn’t have to be a reason Simone Biles feels a little frayed, a little overexposed. Some form of violence is inflicted on these people and it is important to recognize the novelty of it.
For example, if you are John McEnroe in 1984, lose a game and you can go away for a while. You can go back to your apartment and pick up the phone. The pressure you feel is tame, analog pressure from celebrities. There is no toxic white noise chasing you through every room, space, device in your home. Until recently, athletes could shrink a little, suffer privately and have only a faint common memory of their last appearance on this stage.
Naomi Osaka left women’s singles tennis in straight sets against number 42 in the world, Marketa Vondrousova. Photo: David Ramos / Getty Images
Not now. Every part of your existence is public property. Biles and Osaka, these amazingly talented women, are 24 and 23 years old respectively and have lived their adult lives through this voracious digital culture barefoot, playing a racket presented without a protective filter. There is no skin thick enough to shake off indefinitely, no sense of self so severely detached that it can get through without bruising.
And now that we catch a glimpse of this pain, of course there will be guilt. Certainly many aspects of mainstream media look joyless and uncomfortable in this reflected light. Osaka has spoken of her struggle to publicly answer difficult personal questions. Tom Daley was asked about his father’s death in victory on Monday evening and spoke with a startling clarity that he owed and did not have to give to anyone. Imagine being asked this question in painful defeat or when you just didn’t want to talk at all.
Yet it would be profoundly dishonest to put the apologetic finger of guilt solely on the people holding the microphones. The shared digital voice of social media platforms has its own, much heavier weight and will only expand and multiply from here. We all know this darkness. Imagine having the worst day where mistakes are amplified and unkind words start to bite. For people like Biles or Osaka, multiply that poison, that self-loss, by about five billion. What do we want to do with this power? How will we behave here?
And of course, Big Sport has its share of that pressure. So many athletes emerge from an industrialized version of their sport, a system that is not a game or amusement, but a machine designed to win. How is that supposed to play out at the current Olympic Games, when athletes are isolated, cannot be trained and are asked to suddenly step into the light and perform? Jade Jones gave a deeply moving interview in the bowels of Makuhari Messe Hall on Sunday night after her defeat in taekwondo, in which she essentially talked about feeling vulnerable, isolated and unable to connect with her family.
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It is easy to say that in return, financial rewards are offered and public disclosure that any liking for either will be instantly condemned as a charlatan and forced to suffer whatever the world conjures up. Some will suggest that these athletes disconnect from the net, become monastic, withdrawn figures – or just get tougher to go through the noise.
But the world is not like that anymore. Instead, it is a place of incessant noise, awe, poison, expectation. And honestly, exercise looks a little worn out in this light. One thing is certain; The only people who really understand this world are those who go through it before us. Maybe time to just listen.