Naomi Osaka and top sports stars shouldn't be forced to speak to the media at the cost of their mental health – Christine Jardine MP
As a child I dreamed of winning Wimbledon. I knew how I would do it too. A back-hand volley, cross court. My favourite shot.
But I doubt if any athlete in any sport dreams of the sort of endless, invasive scrutiny that now seems to be regarded as just par for the course.
Imagine if your child came home from school and told you that their teacher said they would be expelled if they had chickenpox.
Your employer docked your pay because you dared to take a day off because you had flu.
Or after an exhausting day – good or bad – being contractually obliged to go over the minutiae of the conversation in a meeting and how it made you feel in front of cameras. That probably seems ridiculous, and unlikely.
Unless you are a professional athlete.
Naomi Osaka was fined and threatened with expulsion from Roland Garros, in which she had just won a match, if she didn’t speak to the press.
Not because she had abused an official, broken the rules or was caught taking a banned substance. Just avoiding the media.
Even as a former journalist, and one who did my fair share of sports coverage, I find that harsh.
It becomes unacceptable when you consider the explanation offered by the 23-year-old former world number one.
Before actually withdrawing from the competition, she explained that since winning her first Grand Slam title – the 2018 US Open – she had suffered from “bouts of depression”.
Facing the media after matches causes her, she explained, anxiety before releasing a statement saying she was “taking time away from the court now”.
The backlash from fans and the media was swift and the tennis authorities made a rapid about turn to offer one of its top crowd pullers “support and assistance in any way possible as she takes time away from the court". The assurance came approximately 24 hours after the expulsion threat.
Top sports personalities also rallied in her support. Describing Osaka as “brave”, world motor racing champion Lewis Hamilton revealed that most sports people are not prepared for success.
The man who appears to carry success lightly explained that it can, in reality, weigh heavily, and that appearances before a camera are “daunting”.
But neither we, nor the tennis authorities, should have needed any such explanation.
There is already plenty of evidence of the damage that success in sport can do to even the biggest and strongest star’s state of mind.
In winning her first two grand slam singles titles back to back, Naomi Osaka was the first woman to achieve that feat since Jennifer Capriati, the astonishingly talented young American whose career unravelled amid court appearances. At one point Capriati revealed that she had contemplated suicide, citing tennis burn-out as a factor.
And who can forget the sordid mess that was Tiger Woods’ spectacular fall from grace at the height of an amazing golf career.
Surely the sports authorities should have detected there was a problem before now?
But it is not just sports that need to examine how they protect and nurture talent. People who are the best at anything become standard bearers whether they want to or not.
With that comes responsibility. Both for the standard bearer and for the employer or organisation they represent.
Figures regularly demonstrate that one in two of us will experience some form of mental health issue in our lifetime. And those of us who don’t, will witness and go through it with friends or family.
Our awareness of the issue is improving, but as politicians we still have a lot of work to do until mental health care is on an equal footing with its physical counterpart.
But we also need the sporting authorities, employers and the media to acknowledge their part in creating, and tackling the problem.
Billie Jean King this week talked about recognising the role that a relationship with the press plays in both your individual success and that of your sport.
To a large extent she is right. We all help fund careers and events by buying pictures, merchandise and sporting equipment endorsed by our heroes. That is not, however, justification for the stress.
The recent return of major sporting events has been an international morale booster in these most difficult of times.
And for the next few weeks we will all wait with eager anticipation to learn whether the delayed Olympic games in Japan can safely go ahead.
If they do, the timetable of events will dictate the daily schedule for many of us, keen to see the sort of sporting excellence and achievements of which this pandemic has starved us.
I doubt if any of us will sit by the TV just waiting for the opening ceremony to be over and first gold medals won so that we can enjoy the press conference.
Yes, we want to hear what our idols have to say, and, if we are still young enough, see what tips we can pick up for our own career. But after this year, haven’t we learned to be better, to be kinder?
Perhaps we should remember that for every star who takes it all in their stride and thrives there is one who will not. For every Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova or Serena Williams, there is a Naomi Osaka.
They each bring something special to the court. They excite and inspire others to share the dreams they had as children. The cost of fulfilling those should not be their health.
Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West
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