Simone Biles Olympic anxiety
Photography by Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

Olympic Anxiety is Finally Being Addressed, Thanks to Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles

Olympic angst is nothing new. Here, Kurt Browning reflects back on his apology to Canada after the 1994 Winter games.

It was the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway. Canadian world champion figure skater Kurt Browning was poised to take home a gold medal. But during his televised performance, he shockingly fell on his triple flip. Nerves set in, and as the performance went on, he failed to execute his double Axel. Once he completed his rocky performance, Browning bowed to the audience, and the camera closed in on his face seemingly mouthing the word “unbelievable.”

A live taping of the event shows a disappointed Browning sitting next to his coach after the skate, saying, “I need a hug,” while an Olympics commentator voices over the clip with, “Disaster doesn’t begin to describe what happened to Kurt Browning.” Despite his devastating loss, the athlete carried on to do press, in which a reporter brought up his performance at the 1992 Albertville, France Olympics, where he fell on his triple Axel attempt. The interviewer asked if Browning felt he was “reliving Albertville” with this defeat, and questioned why he seemed to struggle at the Olympics despite having won world championships in the past.

These are questions no one wants to answer, let alone think about, after enduring such a loss. Looking back on his experience, Kurt Browning tells FASHION he couldn’t explain a moment like that because it happens so quickly. “It was totally a mental thing,” he says. Imagine experiencing a heart-wrenching defeat and immediately having to explain on a worldwide broadcast how and why you failed. This is the reality of Olympic anxiety and competing in the games, but maybe it shouldn’t be.

U.S. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles has been making headlines for her decision on July 28 to remove herself from both the team and individual all-around competitions at this summer’s 2020 Tokyo Olympics because of mental health concerns. The athlete spoke out about the extreme pressure that comes from competing in the Games and cited experiencing “the twisties” during practice: a term used among gymnasts to describe a phenomenon where their body and mind won’t cooperate, and as a result, they can’t perform skills.

“There’s a strong connection between where your mind is at and your ability to perform a movement in the best way,” commented Toronto-based physiotherapist Bridie Nicholson, who added that athletes often seek help from sports psychologists to deal with the pressure of high-stakes competitions. “You don’t move at your best when you’re stressed or when you’re thinking about the pressure.”

“As soon as you don’t feel like yourself [and] you don’t feel right, then natural things become unnatural,” Browning says. Athletes are constantly in pursuit of “grace under pressure,” he added, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

“Usually I loved the pressure because it was kind of exciting. It was like, ‘Oh, I like this, if I can skate and do this job and entertain people and have them stand up at the end, that’s the best. Let’s do that instead of falling.’ But when it didn’t happen, it was almost like someone else was doing it to you,” he explained.

Despite the support she’s received for her decision to step back, Biles has also been criticized for being “weak” and “selfish” by forfeiting the U.S. gold medal and speaking out about Olympic anxiety. These criticisms exemplify the way high-level athletes’ bodies can be seen as public property, something viewers feel entitled to. Ironically, most of us cannot envision this type of pressure — Biles described it as having “the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Simone Biles (@simonebiles)

On July 27, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, who was expected to win gold, was eliminated from the Olympics after losing to Czech athlete Marketa Vondrousova. The Associated Press reported that Osaka said she felt “like there was a lot of pressure for this,” and that this loss “sucks more than the others.”

This kind of pressure is what pushed Osaka to remove herself from this year’s French Open, an annual tennis tournament held over two weeks in Paris, France. The 23-year-old athlete said the expectation to attend mandatory press conferences after matches worsened her Olympic anxiety, and she opted out to preserve her mental health.

When Kurt Browning suffered his loss at the 1994 Olympics, he famously issued an apology to all of Canada. His individual disappointment took a backseat and he took on the responsibility and guilt for not bringing a gold medal home to his country.

“I always thought that as an athlete, I’m lucky to be in a sport that people want to watch. I’m lucky to be in the situation with all this pressure,” says Browning. “So that’s why when it didn’t work out, I felt an obligation to say sorry. It came naturally, and I still stand by it.”

The pressure put on Olympic athletes and the range of emotions they must experience is hard to imagine, Toronto-based psychotherapist Matt Cahill told FASHION. “I think the spectrum of emotions that athletes go through — and to some degree are expected to go through, even though they might not have signed up for all of it — is quite incredible.” It’s that same Olympic anxiety that makes competitors tie their performance to their worth as people, ultimately leading athletes like Osaka to pose the question, “What am I if I’m not a good tennis player?”

Biles and Osaka are imposing a necessary turning point in the treatment and expectations of Olympic athletes, he added. “We need our elite athletes to maybe not be these beasts of burden, who are there to hold our collective hopes and dreams, but rather for them to basically say, ‘We are individuals, we are fallible, and we don’t want to risk damaging our bodies if we don’t feel that we are up for this.’” The last thing an athlete wants to do is take themselves out of a competition, added Nicholson, but doing so to attend to mental health concerns is necessary.

Browning’s 1994 apology to Canada perfectly reflected the expectations put on Olympic athletes to succeed for their country. But as Osaka and Biles have demonstrated, this weight can be too much to take on. Browning lauded Osaka and Biles for their bravery in being vulnerable. He pointed out that athletes have experienced mental health struggles for a long time, though these things weren’t openly talked about. “[It’s important for athletes to be] able to say, ‘Today I didn’t feel right… And it doesn’t matter why,” he says. “It’s just enough to know that today, I wasn’t superhuman.’”