Naomi Osaka’s struggles show that elite sport has never been a safe space

At the deep end sport has always been a shark pool full of narcissists and cheaters

 Japan’s Naomi Osaka: Watch tennis do nothing when Wimbledon comes around, Osaka stewing in tabloid headlines.  Photograph:  Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Japan’s Naomi Osaka: Watch tennis do nothing when Wimbledon comes around, Osaka stewing in tabloid headlines. Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

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When Naomi Osaka showed vulnerability, her sport put her in a headlock and drilled its knuckle into her forehead. Sport is what sport does. For all of the ways it can enrich our lives, it is also an unforgiving and heartless tramp.

This week it was unable to grasp the simple social construct of mental health. Not for the first time, even this week.

While Osaka was packing her bags at Roland Garros, in New Zealand a rival weightlifter was talking about the prospect of Kiwi transgender athlete Laurel Hubbard competing in the women’s event at the Tokyo Olympics. She said it is “like a bad joke” for female competitors.

The anti-trans volcano is rumbling. Hubbard is set to become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics after weightlifting’s governing body modified qualifying requirements.

The 43-year-old, who competed in men’s competitions before transitioning in 2013, still has to meet the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s selection criteria before her place is confirmed. But Hubbard’s participation is likely.

Last July an unnamed Premier League footballer revealed he was gay in an open letter, but he wasn’t prepared to reveal himself publicly. The player explained how football isn’t yet “ready for a player to come out” and how “the game would need to make radical changes” in order for him to feel able to reveal his identity. Day-to-day, he said it was a total nightmare and affecting his mental health.

Watch now as Hubbard gets trashed in the coming weeks by her own sport and others. Too late Piers Morgan has already done it. If the gay footballer comes out watch as the trolls and fans pile on. Watch tennis do nothing when Wimbledon comes around, Osaka stewing in tabloid headlines.

Podium

You see sport just doesn’t care about issues or ‘isms – it cares about the result. It cares about home advantage. It cares about the podium. It cares about percentage first serves in. It cares about bonus point wins. It cares about the yellow jersey and the TKO. Dry your eyes.

Mental health, transgender, gay – elite sport doesn’t provide a safe space for those. It never has.

In the social construct they would require a considered, light touch. In the sporting construct you take out the man.

The elite game has never been about health, physical or mental. It doesn’t actually care about it. It has never been about community or the better good. It has never championed rounded individuals or sighed for caring souls.

At the deep end it has always been a shark pool with a zero sum mentality and more than the average population quota of halfwits, narcissists and cheaters.

There is a saying in tennis not meant to be an ageist slur. It goes if cannibalism could guarantee a world top 10 ranking, junior players would be fattening up granny in the back court.

New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard: she is set to become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics after weightlifting’s governing body modified qualifying requirements. Photograph: Alex Pantling/Getty Images
New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard: she is set to become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics after weightlifting’s governing body modified qualifying requirements. Photograph: Alex Pantling/Getty Images

That’s a certain type of mindset. The same one that took a 21-inch collapsible baton to the right leg of ice skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, her attacker hired by the ex-husband of rival Tonya Harding.

The elite sports world is like being an astronaut in space. It’s not normal to be up among the stars or in the top percentile fractions. It’s a life lived under constant privilege and pressure, scrutiny and examination. Players are encouraged to be better than the friend they sit beside on the team bus, take his jersey, keep her on the bench, screw with his head.

By its nature it’s controlled and routine. There is monotony and repetition and it’s not always fair. But elite doesn’t care about equality. It cares about rules, how to bend and break them, what it can squeeze out. It cares about the scoreboard.

Five years

Goldman’s Dilemma. Remember that one. It was a question posed to elite athletes by physician, osteopath and publicist Robert M Goldman. Simple enough he asked whether they would take a drug that would guarantee them overwhelming success in sport, but cause them to die after five years.

Top of the class for coming up with that research question. But approximately half the athletes responded that they would take the drug.

A later survey conducted at an elite-level track and field event in USA showed lower levels of around 1 per cent of acceptance of the proposition of assured victory by illegal drug use followed by death.

If the proposed drug were legal but deadly, around 6 per cent said they would take it, and if it were illegal but harmless around 12 per cent said they would take it.

Legal but deadly 6 per cent. How badly do you want it?

What would you say Osaka’s opponent, Romanian Ana Bogdan ranked 102 in the world, did when she got bumped up to the third round for a guaranteed €113,000 and a match away from a take-home €170,000? (a) think poor Naomi (b) bust out a break dance.

Social construct and sports construct, the two are rarely on a collision course. Ask Hubbard when everybody has had a slice. Ask Osaka in July when her mental health is THE topic. Ask the petrified gay footballer how the sport will protect him on the field and off it.

For the caring chambers of the heart and soul, for life’s balance – elite sport, as useful as a sucked and spat out Smartie.

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