Naomi Osaka of Japan talks to the media after winning her first-round match at the 2020 Brisbane International WTA Premier tennis tournament

Osaka’s Wimbledon withdrawal a timely reminder of the continual issues surrounding athlete mental health

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Being on my college’s welfare team, mental health is something we talk about a lot. Even in my personal life, being the survivor of severe illness in my late teens and the Ariana Grande Terror Attack has left mental health a transparent topic.

In the world of sport, however, it couldn’t be more different despite the high pressure and mental demands, usually from childhood for most athletes. The mental health of athletes is often an afterthought, and that needs to change, especially with damning figures from non-profit organisation Athletes for Hope reporting that 35% of elite athletes suffer from mental health issues.

The issue once more came to to the fore over the past month through tennis player Naomi Osaka, who missed Wimbledon for continued mental health reasons and following on from her high-profile exit of the French Open earlier in the year, following possible sanctions for refusing to talk to the media.

Osaka’s intent to not address the media due to mental health concerns has spread into a discussion far beyond the tennis world, and $15,000 fines into a discussion on athlete mental health across sport that has been well overdue.

The role the media can play in worsening an athlete’s mental health has been brought into the limelight following Osaka’s withdrawals. Whilst her aims were never about removing journalistic access, it is clear that approaching athletes as simply humans, a fact seemingly often overlooked in the modern-day celebrity culture, is a change that must take place.

This dehumanisation of athletes is seen far too regularly. Emotion and journalism are of course key elements of any sport. However, the boundaries are fine and too often crossed.

As a Formula One fan, one of the most memorable instances was the media treatment of Pierre Gasly at the Belgian Grand Prix in 2019. Journalists were often seen swarming the driver for photos and being overly aggressive with their questioning across the weekend.

Later in the weekend, Gasly lost close friend Antoine Hubert in a Formula 2 race, leading to further loaded and inappropriate questions. Surely these boundaries should be drawn between good journalism and respecting the very real emotions athletes may feel.

This was two years ago but it appears journalists have failed to become more tactful and sensitive when interviewing athletes. Gasly himself has spoken about such media treatment and dehumanisation in a recent interview with the Guardian. It is clear he feels his personal life was ignored or, worse, made into the main story throughout those troubling times.

This dehumanisation of athletes is seen far too regularly

Media and athletes’ mental health has not gone away though. In a recent interview at the end of the second stage at the Tour De France, Mathieu van der Poel was asked who he was thinking of when crossing the line as he stood in tears struggling to talk at points.

Having won the stage and with his team, Alpecin-Fenix, wearing special edition jerseys to honour his grandfather the late French cyclist Raymond Poulidor, it was clear the win was highly sentimental and emotional to van der Poel. The question was branded as ‘loaded’ by the ITV4 Tour presenters, who looked shocked after footage cut back to the presenters.

In a more high-profile incident, Christian Eriksen’s on-pitch collapse during Denmark vs Finland Euro’s 2020 match attracted more widespread criticism across social media due to broadcast footage focusing upon Eriksen’s crying wife, and once more raising questions surrounding where the line should be drawn.

It is important to note the issue of athlete mental health is wider than media interaction and Osaka isn’t the first high-profile athlete to talk about mental health publicly, nor will she be the last.

Increasingly, over the last decade, mental health awareness in sport has increased due to a shift in mental health culture and other high-profile athletes speaking out such as Michael Phelps, de-stigmatising the conversation.

The shift in mental health culture is seen through the backing and support of Osaka’s sponsors such as Nike in her decisions to withdraw from Grand Slams. With the support of major sponsors and other major athletes, Osaka has emboldened other athletes to speak out surrounding mental health and the unfair media treatment too many of them often face.

Osaka has started the ball rolling on a discussion that will not end any time soon. We must highlight the work sporting organisations need to do and address how the media approach athletes to provide first-class and respectful coverage.

Athletes are the centre of each sport, with high pressure and mental demands often from childhood, and Osaka’s boldness and honesty have started the work needed for associations to treat them as such and to provide greater mental health support.

Image: WTB Gallery via Flickr

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