NEW YORK: Naomi Osaka. Simone Biles. Both are prominent young Black women under the pressure of a global Olympic spotlight that few human beings ever know. Both have faced major career crossroads at the Tokyo Games. Both cited pressure and mental health.
The glare is even hotter for these Black women given that, after years of sacrifice and preparation, they are expected to perform, to be strong, to push through. They must work harder for the recognition and often are judged more harshly than others when they don’t meet the public’s expectations.
So when New York city resident Natelegé Whaley heard that Black women athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympics were asserting their right to take care of their mental health, over the pressure to perform a world away, she took special notice.
“This is powerful,” said Whaley, who is Black. “They are leading the way and changing the way we look at athletes as humans, and also Black women as humans.”
Being a young Black woman — which, in American life, comes with its own built-in pressure to perform — entails much more than meets the eye, according to several Black women and advocates who spoke to The Associated Press.
The Tokyo Games show signs of signaling the end of an era — one in which Black women on the world stage give so much of themselves that they have little to nothing left, said Patrisse Cullors, an activist and author who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement eight years ago.
“Black women are not going to die (for public acceptance). We’re not going to be martyrs anymore,” said Cullors, who resigned her role as director of a BLM nonprofit foundation in May. “A gold medal is not worth someone losing their minds. I’m listening to Simone and hearing her say, ‘I’m more important than this competition.’”
She added: “Activism and organizing is just one contribution that I’ve given. And we all need to know when enough is enough for us.”
Biles’ message also resonated with Whaley, who co-created an event series in New York City called Brooklyn Recess to preserve the culture of Double Dutch, a rope jumping sport popular in Black communities. Early on, Whaley and co-creator Naima Moore-Turner found they were talking a lot about a mental health component to their events.
“People will say, ‘Let Black women lead, because they know,’” said Whaley, a 32-year-old freelance race and culture writer.
“It’s like, (Black women) know not because we’re some sort of special humans who are supernatural,” she said. “It’s because we live at those intersections where we have no choice but to know.”
The world’s greatest living Olympian, swimmer Michael Phelps, has been credited with elevating a conversation about sports and mental health. But when Phelps hung up his goggles five years ago, he was less likely to be burdened by the chronic health disparities, sexual violence, police brutality and workplace discrimination that Black women, famous or not, endure daily.
Still, the Black women Olympic athletes, echoed by many of their sisters in the U.S. and around the world, stepped forward and said they need to protect their mental health. They didn’t ask for sympathy or permission. They demanded people respect their decisions and let them be.
“I say put mental health first because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to,” Biles, 24, said after pulling out of the women’s team gymnastics final on July 27. Before the Tokyo Games, she was already the most decorated American gymnast in modern times.
Prioritizing mental wellness “shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are, rather than just battle through it,” she said. Biles went on to win a bronze medal in the balance beam competition on Tuesday.—AP