Naomi & Simone : A Case of Privilege

Source : Unsplash

2021 is definitely a weird year in the sports’ books.

Not only did we have to deal with empty stadiums, then almost empty to super super empty seats for the Tokyo Olympics. There was the Euro though that brought good memories; it felt so good!

Along the way, the serious matter that is mental health became the go to reason to either explain a win or a loss — mental toughness has always been what differentiates a winner to second place.

As a tennis player, I was stunned to read Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open aka Roland Garros (my favorite Grand Slam by the way) because she did not want to face questions from the media. Haters were quick to point out that this is a case of selfishness and Pro Osaka were happy to share their support on/off social media.

Although I understand her stance for having heard years after years of either unprofessional questions (women get asked some seriously stupid questions) or uncomfortable ones after an athlete’s loss; this is what makes a champion. The mental toughness is needed to be able to navigate these waters.

Naomi is a tennis champion (4x time Grand Slam winner), she has defeated Serena Williams in the Australian Open final and she has now reached a level of fame where she does not feel she owes a thing either to the media or the fans. And that is what I call Privilege.

Obviously, none of the critics (including myself) is in her position, I do not know what she has to deal with inside her head but I never expected her journey to be an easy one, like many champions before and after her, champions have many stories to share about their struggles; obstacles encountered along the way. The lesson we hear the most is surely to never give up.

As a human being who decided to follow my dreams, I can share stories of pushbacks and challenges; I do not have to be a pro athlete to understand that mental toughness is a tool we all use daily.

Naomi and other athletes are sharing a new model about mental health that I never expected — to quit, to give up is the best option ; this is not always a great lesson for our youth who are looking for people to emulate. See Emma Radunacu at this year’s Wimbledon.

One thing I read between the lines is that Naomi is a privileged (some will say spoiled) tennis player. Privilege, for political reasons, has recently been associated with white people.

Source : Online Oxford dictionary

Her position in the sports industry and entertainment to some extent has allowed her to say yes or no to this tournament or this photo shoot.

What now for other athletes who do not have the same privilege?

Source: Forbes

Well, they will have to hustle and bustle for the top, run after sponsorships especially for women who struggled to get one sponsor compared to the men’s unless the woman athlete looks like a top model. Naomi Osaka’s case is not about her alone but reaches other sports (football, basketball, swimming, and recently gymnastics). Simone Biles decided to withdraw from the Olympics to protect her mental health citing reasons of not wanting to do this for other people. When one is representing a country, it is no longer about one’s feelings at least for two weeks every two/four years (World Championships and The Olympics Games).

Source : Simone Biles (Twitter)

One Japanese who is mixed raced (Japanese/Haiti-American) and one American (African American) both decided to step aside.

This summer when Roland Garros along with the other Grand Slams managemtn decided not to allow Osaka’s plea to not answer questions from journalists, many were quick to jump on the French organisation for not supporting this Black woman (hmm, she is mixed race ladies and gentlemen). One thing I do well is criticise the French system because at this time, I have been through a lot and as any foreigner will tell you, the French system is one that will build your character whether you are a resident for 3 months or 15 years.

Back at Roland Garros, the management was given almost no notice and Naomi’s team deciding to avoid questions meant that she was violating one of the tournament’s rules.

Now, imagine waking up and going to your management or HR to inform that you will no longer perform this or that role that is on your job description. It will surely not go well.

Source : Simone Biles (Twitter)

Naomi Osaka cornered the tennis body and French do not do well under pressure (here I am putting on my sports analyst hat) but they tend to do bureaucracy pretty well. To give you an example, to renovate the Roland Garros courts, it took more or less SIX years.

Sports are not everything in life but they play a huge part in our lives. I wonder what kind of lessons we are getting from this new model. Is the media to blame for stupid questions? For sure! But there are some proper sports journalists who will ask the right questions and athletes will have to endure the uncomfortable ones for sure. It is literally part of the game. We do not question athletes when they are withdrawing from competitions because of injuries. We get that.

The more I hear about mental health issues, I hear less about the struggles and need to overcome the fights and more about me,me,me where I am not here to please anyone, I am supposed to do this and that for myself. I am inclined to ask how old is the person who is thinking this way because an adult is well aware of the responsibilities that come with time.

Source : Bible Hub | 1 Corianthians 13:11

If tomorrow everything I do is about me, I am not really hopeful for my future. What I like about sports is the resilience, the belief in one’s capacity to succeed, to prove something to oneself or to the world. Nonetheless, in this position, I am not there alone, I am usually with a team, if I perform well, I have sponsors that come with contracts, financial expenditures etc. In this current climate, I believe it is a risqué move to complain about an African American on a global stage and having read Simone’s sponsors’ applause on social media, I wonder how they really feel about her move and her future actions.

In international competitions, the winners will be countries like China, Russia and I hope more African countries that will reap the rewards of all of these step backs. The interesting thing coming from Naomi and Simone is that the two are in a position where they can get sports psychologists. Support is not lacking and I am doing my best not to compare with other countries in development. Mental health should be acknowledged and I guess what privilege teaches us, we do not have the same problems and it is OK.

USA v (Rest of)The World : Me v The World.

Also, sports psychologists are not well recognised in the industry so maybe, unconsciously, these women are raising awareness on the need to hire more of them on national teams or any sports team.

Who knows maybe there will be a documentary following Simone Biles explaining her Tokyo journey on a streaming platform à la Naomi.

I cannot wait to see what 2022 has in store.

I cannot wait for the real Olympics to take place in 2024.

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alex nyamoya boyi

Kirundi & Frenglish. Entrepreneur working in the media sphere by producing podcasts & consultant in tourism, sports & tech in Africa. Instagram & Twitter.