The summer of 2021 may be remembered not so much for great sporting events as for top athletes deciding to proudly run away. ‘Dina Asher-Smith has pulled out of the Olympics altogether, after failing to make the 100 metres final,’ says a voice from the radio. ‘I’m really proud of everything I’ve done to this point,’ she says. In July cricketer Ben Stokes, OBE, Wisden Leading Cricketer in the World for 2019 and 2020, decided to miss the India Test series and take ‘indefinite break’ from cricket, to ‘prioritize his mental well-being,’ and rest his little finger.
What would Pierre Baron de Courbertin who instigated the modern Olympic movement, or Thomas Arnold of Rugby School who influenced him, think if they could see international sport today; people of provisional nationalities, men who’ve recently fathered children running against women, all of them making more money than he could ever have imagined but frequently collapsing, even without physical injury and running away. He might be even more surprised that their weakness and lack of any self-control earns no rebuke, instead high praise.
The Baron was an eager educationalist who at Rugby, saw how, ‘Sport can create moral and social strength.’ In 1889, when he organised the first Greek style games, he proposing five rules; Joy of Effort, Fair Play, Respect for Others; pursuit of excellence; balance between body, will and mind. Above all; ‘The important thing is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.’
Those ideas came from the Stoic tradition, founded in Athens in the third century, which influenced Christianity, particularly St Paul, and flourished in the Renaissance and Reformation with their emphasis on individual responsibility. Stoics and their descendants down the ages believed that happiness was based on refusing to allow oneself to be controlled by any desire for pleasure or the fear of pain. It preached temperance, self-control, discipline, fortitude and modesty, leading to emotional resilience and ideally, calm.
The Baron’s calm might have been ruffled by the sight of US gymnast Simone Bile’s glittering leotard. She designed it herself, ‘to inspire other athletes all over the world,’ selling it for $390 a piece. She also sports a rhinestone goat. G.O.A.T. stands for, ‘Greatest of All Time,’ by which she means herself. She recently told an interviewer, ‘I want kids to learn that, yes, it’s okay to acknowledge that you’re good or even great at something.’ Asked, before the last Olympics, ‘You’re the most unbeatable athlete in the history of athletics, right?’ she agreed, adding, ‘I feel like there are people out there that could potentially beat me, but even on my worst days, I still won. Typically, I win every competition that I’m entering.’
Plenty of ‘Joy of effort’ and ‘Pursuit of Excellence’ had obviously paid off, but maybe the Olympian Gods were miffed at such lack of modesty amounting to hubris. She made a mistake in her first exercise and although uninjured, dropped out, leaving her team to fight on without their leader, and hot favourites for a Gold, they came second to the Russians. To excuse her debacle, she used the Stoic, ‘Balance of body and mind,’ idea but renamed it, ‘Mental health issues.’ This might also puzzle the 19th century Baron and the British Head Master, who probably didn’t share their anxieties with anyone.
On July 28, 2021, Biles also quit the Olympic finals, saying she’d felt disorientated in mid-air, well who wouldn’t? Her behaviour was applauded by US commentators including Ellen DeGeneres who praised her, ‘courage’ and ‘heroism’ for dropping out, calling her a ‘true inspiration’. Biles explained that she’d been ‘inspired’ to quit by tennis champion, Naomi Osaka, who fled the French Open and Wimbledon, also citing, ‘mental health issues.’
Osaka, is ranked No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association. Her 125 mph serve has made her reigning champion of the US and Australian Open. There’s much to admire in her pursuit of excellence, and she made $37.4 million, in 2020, mostly from endorsements as brand ambassador for Nissan and All Nippon Airways. Virtue is obviously no longer the greatest reward, and neither is respect for other people; shortly before this year’s French Open, she announced that she wouldn’t do any press interviews. Threatened with fines she withdrew from the tournament, blaming, yes, those good old mental health issues. Again, this drew thunderous applause, for her ‘courage,’ in bringing up the, ‘Rarely discussed issue of mental health issues.’ On June 17, 2021, her agent announced she wouldn’t go to Wimbledon but would be well enough for the Tokyo Olympics.
Sport is now is about the self and instant gratification. Like education, it can no longer be uncomfortable or a grind. Biles revealingly told Piers Morgan that she walked out because; ‘I feel like I’m also not having as much fun. I wanted it to be for myself, but I came in and I felt like I was still doing it for other people. It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.’
The behaviour of these wealthy young sports stars has revealed how far we are not just from the Greek ideal of Olympic sport, but even the culture of fifty- seven years ago, when some of us watched the first Olympiad from Tokyo, in October 1964. Children growing up then, in the fading light of the British Empire, were often still inculcated with its values which had produced soldiers and Christian servants of that empire; particularly the idea of selfless stoicism. If you joined a club you were committed to its team, started a project you had to finish it, there was no turning back or ‘shirking,’ as it was called. If you slipped over you got up and dusted yourself off without tears. If you fell off your horse or bike you remounted immediately, not wasting any time whinging about the pain. The best way to deal with damage, emotional or physical, was not to ‘give way,’ and above all you did not want to let other people down. The code was strict, often too repressive, but encouraged bravery and risk taking. It produced people like Manchester City goal keeper, Bert Trautmann, who played on with a broken neck in the 1956 Cup Final, helping his side to win 3-1, and Terry Butcher, who played on in an England v Sweden match in 1989 covered in blood, after splitting his head open. That film is now followed by a voice warning, without irony, that heading the ball ‘May lower a footballer’s IQ.’
That once famous British, ‘Play up and play the game,’ spirit is now regarded as immoral. A journalist wrote that it was correct that bilious Biles bailed out of her contest, because a gymnast once had a bad accident in 1988. ‘A gold medal is not worth a potentially fatal injury,’ she wrote. Isn’t there another view, that everyone who mounts a horse, drives a racing car, or climbs a rock choosing to embrace jeopardy and express a joy and confidence in life and its inevitable uncertainty? Today’s athletes, the most cossetted ever, represent the new terror of risk which is now limiting everyone’s lives from children who want to play outside to adults who’d like to dive into the deep end in their local swimming pool, although there is unlikely to be any water over a safe four foot. Struggle and a hard fight used to be considered, ‘character forming,’ leading to moral and social strength.
Sport is now, like education, linked to ‘therapy culture,’ with a new language to describe weakness as strength and Narcissism as courage. This consists of a lot of cliches laced with the words, ‘Proud,’ (Of self,) ‘Prioritise,’ (one’s mental health). ‘Wellness,’ and, ‘performative wellness,’ buzz-words defined by a ‘Wellness Therapist’ from ‘Rhodes Wellness College,’ Vancouver, as, ‘Those who feel overwhelmed by their wellness routines, could be dealing with performative wellness. Those who don’t receive any stress relief from stress-relieving activities like yoga, or mindfulness, or who feel trapped in their self-care routine, may also be experiencing performative wellness (Slattery, 2017).’
Stoicism was rooted in the acceptance of nature and coping by self-control, ‘Wellness’ is more about magical thinking, catching a kind of cosmic ‘good energy’ to achieve material ends. Rather than learning reason or knowledge, young people are the product of an education system increasingly based on self-disclosed emotions and symptoms real and imaginary, often shared across social media. In the case of sports celebrities this can be extreme, turning them into anxious and self-preoccupied individuals rather than optimistic and resilient athletes.
Getting to the top, quickly earning squillions, then dropping out of your chosen game is now the ultimate sign of mental strength, or ‘Wellness,’ that new virtue which indicates a particularly strong brand of self-love. Anyone who claims to be doing so because of a vulnerability, such as ‘mental health issues,’ is beyond criticism.
Only the truly non-woke, at the back of the stands clutching a plastic beer cup, and those who remember what the values of sportsmanship once used to be, will be tempted to mutter one of Boris Johnson’s now forbidden expressions, ‘Epic softies.’