It’s been one week since the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games concluded, and it’s a miracle that these Games happened at all, in the pandemic times we are living through right now.
One of my passions is to support the professionalism of coaches, which I do through my coaching, mentoring and assessing activities. I pause in gratitude every day for the coaching profession, and being in the human development field, contributing positively to the world.
One of my other great passions is watching high performing athletes playing, whether that is a team or individual sport. There is direct application to my coaching activities; watching how people respond under pressure or when engaged in excellence, in real life situations, as teams and individual contributors. I rarely get to observe individuals and teams inside organizations, and live sport is a way to vicariously have this experience to enjoy, and learn from.
This article offers some of my personal reflections on some of the athletic performances, and some of the human stories that emerged.
My history with sport
I’ve always been a sport lover, playing competition netball from a young age in my country of origin, Australia, and for 19 years in a row. Here is a black and white picture taken by a local newspaper. I was in my late teens playing the Goal Attack position (I’m far right with darker hair).
In my later teens and early twenties, I played competition tennis for 5 years. Here’s a photo, again taken by the local newspaper.
While I no longer play either sport, if I had my time over and it was a sport available to me growing up, I would love to be an elite athlete playing indoor volleyball. The individual skills, and team chemistry required, plus the dynamic jumping and movement around the court, are all very appealing to me.
Beside the physical skills required to play any sport at a high level, I’m very attracted to the psychology of athletes, and how they manage themselves in pressure situations. Yes, in another parallel life maybe I would have become a Sport Psychologist, after my own international career as an elite Indoor Volleyball professional 😊.
The Olympic Games – Taking time off to engage in my Passion
There is no greater pressure in sport than competing as an elite athlete at the Olympic Games. It is a world stage like no other.
I took two weeks of vacation so I could watch the Olympic Games at any hour, and as much as I wanted to. All my clients knew from February 2020 that I would be on vacation these two weeks, and what I was going to be doing. I live in California, so most of the events occurred from 5pm my time, and throughout the night. With the excellent coverage by the NBC television network across a number of stations, along with their Olympic App, I was able to watch any sport at any time, and a wide range of countries competing. Granted, I watched on a small screen, yet it was incredibly important to me to have the freedom to watch as many events as I wanted to.
I was still living in Sydney in 2000 (I immigrated to the US late in 2001) and had the great fortune of attending the Olympic Games in my own city. It was so much fun! I attended as many events as I could get tickets for, including for Swimming, Track & Field, as well as sports I knew nothing about such as Greco-Roman wrestling and Judo. That is the beautiful thing about the Olympic Games, the opportunity to watch so many sports I never usually access. Here’s a photo from the swimming pool at 2000 Olympics.
Naomi Osaka lights the Olympic Cauldron
I only had tears once during these Olympic Games, and it was the moment when Naomi Osaka came into view as the last athlete in line, who would light the Olympic Cauldron. I could not imagine a more perfect choice of person for this great honor.
Naomi represents so many aspects of the human experience right now. She is Japanese-Haitian who was raised and lives in the United States. She is pushing the cultural boundaries of the white Japanese culture which is confronted by her being black.
Naomi is currently the highest paid female athlete in the world, and has so far won four Tennis Grand Slam titles. She has been the #1 female player in the world and likely will be again. In 2020, she found her courage and participated in protests against racism in the United States, which also resulted in all tennis matches being suspended for a day when she withdrew in protest of more murders of African American people by police.
In May, 2021, Naomi withdrew from the French Open, citing intense and sometimes inappropriate questions after she loses a match, that impact her mental and emotional wellbeing. As a black athlete in a sport that is still predominantly white, she is also at the receiving end of subtle and not-so-subtle racism.
The way the French Open Tournament (and Grand Slam) Committee handled the situation was less than stellar and demonstrated the lack of understanding of what mental health and well being for athletes really means. The good thing is the poor handling by the French Open Tournament Committee (and a few famous alumni tennis players), sparked an already simmering conversation about mental health. It seems that there is often a misaligned correlation made between how much an athlete is paid and what they’re supposed to be able to handle mentally and emotionally, when they are human beings first. Everyone has a different way of handling pressure, and athletes are not robots who perform like a circus act.
I’m simplifying the issues for the purpose of this article. Everything about Naomi represents topical issues. Her presence being selected to light the Olympic Cauldron continued these important conversations which reach far beyond sport, and globally.
Simone Biles and Mental / Emotional Health
The Olympic Games provides opportunities for the unexpected to happen, and Simone Biles withdrawing from the various disciplines of gymnastics she was qualified to compete in was one of the biggest stories, again with global and far reaching impact beyond sport.
Simone is already recognized as the greatest female gymnast of all time (G.O.A.T) and is only 24 years of age. She has endured sexual abuse in her workplace and stated in interviews that her participation in the Olympics was important so that the USA Gymnastics Governing Body continues to make changes that protect their athletes.
For Simone to recognize the greater opportunity her presence has and tTo take on such a high-pressure and personal cause, is so courageous. It may have been this pressure was weighing heavily on her, and a reason she experienced the “twisties” which gymnasts and divers can face, which is disorientation when in the air. To participate when experiencing the twisties can (and has) injury and even life-altering implications.
Simone said that she was inspired by Naomi Osaka to focus on her mental health and withdraw from competition when she realized she couldn’t safely perform high risk twists in the air. This is the potential elite athletes often provide; to bring to light global issues and start or continue difficult conversations that hopefully lead to change for many people in and beyond sport.
The overarching message these athletes send to us ordinary folks is that even as an elite athlete, they have doubts, physical, mental and emotional issues to deal with. This in turn starts to destigmatize mental health for everyone.
Some of the sports I enjoyed watching
I enjoyed watching so, so many sporting events including rowing, tennis, women’s golf, javelin, high jump, long jump, and all track and field events. I watched some of the martial arts events too, with particular interest in Karate, as one of my clients owns Karate Studios (Dojo).
I was amazed at the Artistic Swimming where the athletes have to perform synchronized moves in an artistic way, making it look effortless, including while holding their breath under water, and looking like you’re not swimming, yet having to move down the length of the pool!
Some thoughts on specific sports I watched:
I enjoyed watching this sport, and especially matches played by the US Women’s Water Polo Team. I’m sending special love and appreciation to my friend and colleague Linda Y, who is my text/email buddy for discussing this sport, and tennis on a regular basis. Happy upcoming milestone birthday Linda!
Have you ever attempted to navigate an indoor climbing wall? I have, and it’s very hard. Like most high performing athletes in their discipline, they make it look easy. Sport Climbing was one of them. I was enthralled by their abilities to hang upside down and sideways!
The culture of skateboarding feels like a family of athletes who love their sport and are really there to support each other. I became engrossed in the Park Skateboarding events, where Japanese men and women won gold. Yet it was 13 year old Sky Brown who grabbed my attention, winning a bronze medal. Imagine being an elite athlete with an Olympic medal at 13 years of age! She also had a scary life-threatening training accident just over a year ago, where she is lucky to be alive.
Sky is another cross-cultural athlete, born in Japan to a Japanese mother and British father, and being raised in California.
Aussie Logan Martin won the gold medal in the men’s event. These men and women race around a track at such speed! I enjoyed many of the cycling events (having watched the Tour de France just before the Olympics), including Road Cycling, Mountain Biking, and Track Cycling in the Velodrome.
Go Aussie go! Swimming is often where Australians excel, and a standout was Ariarne Titmus who won two individual gold medals. I watched every single swimming event!
The Chinese divers are astounding to watch in their skill level, and won most of the diving events. For that reason, it was a surprise that British divers Tom Daley and Matty Lee won the Men’s 10m Synchronized Platform competition.
Tom brought knitting and crocheting to the foreground, being activities he started in 2020 during the pandemic. Tom is incredibly talented in these crafts too and auctions some of his creations for charity. Here’s something he knitted at the Olympic Games! If you want to check out some of his other incredible work, go to his Instagram @madewithlovebyTomDaley
The youngest athlete to compete at these Olympic Games was 12 year old Table Tennis Player from Syria, Hend Zaza. The oldest to compete was 66 year old Australian Equestrian, Mary Hanna!
I feel inspired and refreshed from my Olympic watching!
Thank you to my husband Michael, for watching so much Olympic Sport with me and the great conversations we had as a result.
I happily had Olympic Games Fatigue by the end and look forward to watching some of the Summer Paralympic Games which begin August 24, and being awed and inspired.
Written by Carly Anderson.
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