Naomi Osaka and the burden of a champion

That’s what I thought when British teenager Emma Raducanu won the US Open 2021. I don’t follow tennis closely so I wondered, was Osaka not playing? Turns out, she was out rather prematurely, and then a very emotional press conference followed. Later, she put out a note on Twitter. Then, she turned up at Met Gala.

Overwhelming. Crests and troughs in a matter of days. I know this, I hear her, I understand. I know what being euphoric one moment feels and how being despondent the other minute comes about. Osaka has been making some noise for quite a while about her mental health ever since she became the world champion in tennis in 2018. And I am glad she is making the noise. I can imagine how it would have been like for champions, two decades ago, with no social media and intense media scrutiny. Perhaps the intense media scrutiny was present but minute by minute commentary on their professional and personal lives is new. There are tons of reports, like this one, on the money Osaka has made as a 23-year-old and how tennis is not the only interest she has. It doesn’t let you breathe. It doesn’t stop the spiral it sets off for people who bear the brunt of it all.

I remeber what Osaka said and it haunts me quite a lot. She said, when I win, I feel relief, not happiness. She spoke like the class topper who came first once and then everyone booed her/him when one came second the next. As if he/she was never good enough, and nothing else mattered besides coming first. Imagine how other averages in classrooms or sports or workplaces feel like. This has to go. Our obsession with winners. Or, winning. Losing is still important. Losing is the most important part of winning. And while consistency may be exalted as something all winners have, I disagree.

I know tons of artists (counting myself in) who are eccentric, inconsistent and moody. We allow ourselves to fail, do little sometimes, and get used to being on the periphery until the day one poem, one story, one book gets read and raved about. We accept that this may happen after we are dead. Posthumous recognition or appreciation or greatness. Or, worse, it never happens. What happens then? Who cares after you are gone? What matters is, you lived, you worked, you did what you could, you followed your heart’s uttermost desire whatever it was, without anyone egging you on towards a goal or purpose or impossibly ridiculous standards of greatness. That’ what matters.

Osaka said she will take time off from tennis to figure out what she wants to do. Like a regular 23 year old. It’s all great. She must be excused from the tall order of things if that’s not the order she believes in or draws happiness from. If she wins and still isn’t happy anymore, she needs the space to think for herself. Only she decides where she wants to be.

If she rejects tennis (and I do hope she comes out stronger whatever she decides), it’s the sports’ loss, not hers. Like it should be. And I hope it will come as a wake up call for sports federations around the world. Sportspersons have been crying for attention, support and empathy for quite some time now. I can not bear to see Osakas of the world crumbling just because no one cared.

By EconHistorienne

Economic History + Narratives + Enterprise

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