It’s the Tokyo Olympics and the pressure on Chinese athletes to perform has never been greater. It has to be gold. If they win anything less than gold, the athletes are regarded as unpatriotic by angry folk on social media.
And so we watch as China’s mixed-doubles table tennis team make a tearful and heartfelt apology – for only winning a silver medal.
‘I feel like I’ve failed the team… I’m sorry everyone,’ Liu Shiwen says, in grovelling apology, tears welling up in her eyes.
And maybe here’s a clue as to why so many top sports people are ‘taking a break’ from their sports: the unrelenting pressure to succeed.
Elite athletes are some of the most determined people on the planet. They have made huge sacrifices to get to where they have. But somewhere inside, they are also human.
It’s not a new story. The World Cup winning rugby hero Johnny Wilkinson recalls difficult times. ‘I’d be sat in the hotel room trying to watch the TV but it was just light changing colour. I was so anxious.’
More recently, Simone Biles, the remarkable American gymnast from who so much was expected, withdrew from a number of Olympic events ‘to protect her mental health.’
Two months before, the World No.2 tennis player, Naomi Osaka, did the same before the Paris Open. She also stayed away from Wimbledon. She needed a break – and she’s only twenty four.
And now Ben Stokes, perhaps the world’s greatest cricket all-rounder, has surprised everyone and taken an indefinite break from cricket ‘to prioritise his mental wellbeing.’
The England captain, Joe Root, is supportive. ‘I just want my friend to be OK. He always puts others first. Now it’s an opportunity to put himself first.’
We expect our sports stars to entertain us and amaze us; and we expect them to win. It’s what they’re for. We don’t want their back story – we just want them to succeed. And if they don’t, social media will not be forgiving, as the Chinese table tennis players have discovered.
The rewards for our sports stars are great – popular acclaim, sponsorship deals and fabulous pay packets. But inside the strutting performer is a human being, who may be more fragile.
You can’t get more macho than Eddie Hall. He was the World’s Strongest Man and no snowflake. So he shocked the world when he spoke about depression. Strong men didn’t do this sort of thing: strong men aren’t weak.
But inside, he was desperate. ‘Unless I won the World’s Strongest Man, there was no point in me living.’
Sports stars who admit weakness unsettle us. We look to sport for escapism not reality. But maybe they also help us.
We may not have the world’s media on our backs; but we can create our own pressure, attack ourselves, with the demand to be perfect, the pressure not to make mistakes.
Anxiety, fear and self-punishment follow; and all joy is gone.
Maybe sports stars giving themselves a break can help us to do the same.