THE tears of Tom Daley, the withdrawal of Simone Biles from her first gymnastic event, the early exit of Naomi Osaka, who said “I feel like my attitude wasn’t that great because I don’t really know how to cope with that pressure,” the disappointment of Bianca Walkden in the Taekwondo (“I gave my soul”) — competitive sporting events are often emotional affairs, but at this year’s Tokyo Olympics, feelings have seemed rawer. Biles, the exemplar of physical achievement, said after pulling out: “I have to focus on my mental health. I just think mental health is more prevalent in sports right now. We have to protect our minds and our bodies, and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do. . . There were a couple of days when everybody tweets you, and you feel the weight of the world.” She said that she had been helped by other athletes who were now speaking out about their mental struggles. Osaka had pulled out of the French Open earlier in the summer, blaming her mental fragility and stating: “I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms — frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me.”
One can only marvel at the mental robustness that is needed in a world in which — after a lifetime of gruelling preparation — success or failure, fame or obscurity, can turn on a fractionally substandard instant, or simply the better performance of an opponent. More than 11,000 athletes are trying for 339 sets of medals at this year’s Olympics. The overwhelmingly typical experience of an Olympic athlete, therefore, is to lose — marginally better odds than buying a lottery ticket, but a far worse investment, given how much each athlete puts into the venture. That none the less so many compete suggests that it is not the winning that matters, but the chance to compete. Added to that is the sheer animal thrill of sporting activity, the bolstering support of team mates, and the pride of being selected to represent your country. What makes this a positive-sum game, though, is often the coaching that an athlete receives. The sacrifices that elite sports demand of their participants need to be offset by wise psychological support. No muscle, no organ plays a greater part than the brain.
FOR once, we will hold off our customary gripes about how much earlier Christmas celebrations start each year. Dunstable Priory held its Christmas Day service last Sunday, 25 July. It was late, not early, having been postponed for seven months because of the pandemic. We approve of the singing of carols and the eating of mince pies, though the visit of Father Christmas strikes us as inauthentic. As every reader of Raymond Briggs knows, Father Christmas goes on blooming holiday at this time of year.