Ceaseless noise of judgment has dehumanised young sport stars | Jonathan Liew

The building blocks of our culture stop us seeing the famous as people. That is not the function we have assigned them

Naomi Osaka gave a press conference on Friday night. She’s started doing them again, by the way; I mention this only because after opting out of media duties during the French Open this year, lots of people immediately decided that she was weaponising her own mental health as a sly ruse to evade media scrutiny. Still, a lot of red-faced talk-show hosts and newspaper columnists got to lecture a 23-year-old woman on her personal choices, so maybe that was the most important thing.

It was a tough watch. Osaka had just lost in tempestuous circumstances against Leylah Fernandez at the US Open and, as she announced her intention to take a short break from tennis, she reflected with teary equanimity on a sport that, for whatever reason, was no longer working for her. “Recently, when I win I don’t feel happy, I feel more like a relief,” she said. “And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.”

Not normal, perhaps, but to an increasing and regrettable degree normalised. The day after Osaka’s defeat the American player Sloane Stephens posted a few of the roughly 2,000 messages she received after losing against Angelique Kerber. Among the abundant racist and sexist abuse were rape threats, kidnap threats, death threats, threats to track her down and break her legs. “This type of hate is so exhausting and never ending,” Stephens wrote on Instagram. “This isn’t talked about enough, but it freaking sucks.”

Pretty much every female tennis player on the tour has stories such as this. It is not just them, either. Simply to exist in the public sphere, however fleetingly, is to be co-opted into a ceaseless noise of instant, reflexive and often performative judgment. Consider the ridiculous treatment of Simone Biles – an athlete who you might feel has earned a certain benefit of the doubt – when she pulled out of various events at the Tokyo Olympics. She was accused of being a quitter, of mental weakness, of essentially violating the contract that all performers unwittingly undertake when they appear on our screens: turn up, entertain us and then get lost.

Really this is a phenomenon that cuts across sport, across popular culture, one that rears its head wherever women have the temerity to occupy space. For example, pop stars such as Lizzo, Lorde, Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish have started to articulate creatively the privations of fame, pushing back against a cultural marketplace that essentially demands they turn up, entertain us and then get lost. When Eilish sings on her new album: “Things I once enjoyed just keep me employed now”, it is not hard to imagine these words emerging, equally plausibly, from the mouth of Osaka or Biles.

Partly, you feel, this is a function of the way we are encouraged to consume entertainment. The packaging of art or sport as content, as a product to be commodified and sold, has implications well beyond the bottom line. In a sense, it re-imagines our relationship with the performer as a consumer transaction, submits their feeling and whims to the wilder instincts of the market at large. Fame and success, accolades and wealth, aspiration and attention, are conflated to the point where we can no longer meaningfully distinguish between them.

And so for many, to empathise with the suffering of the public star – the footballer being racially abused, the cricketer trapped in the tour bubble, the pop star being fat-shamed – makes no more sense than to empathise with Captain Marvel or the insurance meerkats or the basil plant in your basket. This is not simply a media problem, or even a social media problem. The very building blocks of our culture militate against seeing the famous as humans, because that is not the function we have assigned to them.

Sloane Stephens in action during the US Open.
Sloane Stephens in action during the US Open. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

Of course, pop stars can turn their pain into great art. The female athlete, meanwhile, is constricted by schedules and opponents, rules written and unwritten. Above all they are challenging a predominantly, aggressively white male space, rendered non-normative by convention, constantly being challenged, menaced, forced to justify themselves. The subtext is this: what are you really doing here?

So Osaka cannot simply be protecting her mental health. Something else must be behind it: hatred, control, laziness. Biles cannot simply be a champion going through tough times. She’s a fraud, a diva. In the same way that athletes of colour are forced to navigate an exhausting minefield of bad faith (Marcus Rashford is in it for the PR; taking the knee is a Trojan horse for Marxism!), the institutional suspicion of female athletes takes many forms but springs from one basic impulse. This person cannot possibly be who she says she is.

This works both ways. It is interesting to compare today’s fractured, complex, vulnerable young stars to the immaculate, omnipotent, demi-godlike personae erected around their predecessors: your Serena Williamses, your Cristiano Ronaldos, your Beyoncés. They were implacable and infallible, untouchable and by extension unhurtable. Adversity was something to be beaten. Tragedy was something to be overcome. That this was only a hopelessly warped cartoon of reality was beside the point. When we started anointing superhumans, what did we think was going to happen to the humans within?

This is the horrific din into which today’s young stars – and the thousands below them who cannot afford an extended career break or a full-time psychologist – have been birthed. We want them to play. We want them to win. We want them to make us happy. And if they are not happy themselves? Well, they are famous. Of course they are.

Contributor

Jonathan Liew

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka highlight the untenable pressures of Big Sport | Barney Ronay
For those in sport today, pressures are untenable amid an endlessly hostile kind of unregulated social experiment

Barney Ronay in Tokyo

27, Jul, 2021 @8:01 PM

Article image
Love, courage and solidarity: 20 essential lessons young athletes taught us this summer
Marcus Rashford, Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles and Tom Daley – from the Euros to Wimbledon to the Olympics, this season’s biggest stars have shown success is about much more than trophies

Sirin Kale

05, Aug, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Simone Biles is redefining brilliance in a sport that shamefully failed her | Marina Hyde
After the Larry Nassar saga USA Gymnastics should not exist but Simone Biles continues to bring her sport dignity – and money

Marina Hyde

14, Aug, 2019 @5:18 PM

Article image
Simone Biles’ desire to innovate is frustrated by her own insular sport | Tumaini Carayol
The WTC’s refusal to properly reward new skills is in danger of creating a world where gymnastic routines are tediously similar

Tumaini Carayol in Tokyo

23, Jul, 2021 @6:00 PM

Article image
Naomi Osaka beats the boos and begins long road to tennis icon status | Paul MacInnes
Naomi Osaka, the US Open winner, has the tools to win repeatedly but Serena Williams’s example shows the hurdles that may lie in her way

Paul MacInnes

10, Sep, 2018 @8:27 PM

Article image
Naomi Osaka’s split with Sascha Bajin a sign of the times and her steeliness | Kevin Mitchell
Few saw the parting coming but it demonstrates the impermanence of the player-coach relationship at the top of world tennis

Kevin Mitchell

12, Feb, 2019 @2:47 PM

Article image
Sloane Stephens beats Naomi Osaka in three sets at WTA Finals – as it happened
Game-by-game report: Sloane Stephens got her tournament off to a good start, overcoming the US Open in three sets in Singapore

Jacob Steinberg

22, Oct, 2018 @2:19 PM

Article image
Simone Biles' bronze on beam ends quest to break gymnastics gold record
Simone Biles’s bid for a history-making fifth Olympic gold medal fell short as she had to settle for bronze in the individual balance beam competition

Bryan Armen Graham in Rio de Janeiro

15, Aug, 2016 @8:08 PM

Article image
Simone Biles to take ‘a day at a time’ before further Tokyo participation
The US gymnast withdrew during the team competition citing mental health concerns and was later keen to ensure her teammates received credit for their silver medals

Tumaini Carayol at Ariake Gymnastics Centre

27, Jul, 2021 @5:44 PM

Article image
Simone Biles helped me to gold, says USA’s Sunisa Lee after all-around win
Sunisa Lee, who won all-around gold, said: ‘I was starting to put a lot of pressure on myself,’ while Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade won silver after injury troubles

Tumaini Carayol at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre

29, Jul, 2021 @6:42 PM