Superhuman is still human

Discussion of athlete’s mental health raises questions about notions of success, fame, and skill

Cooper Piercy, Staff Writer

Figures of speech are a constant part of our daily lives no matter who we are- hyperbole, or dramatic exaggeration, being one of the most commonly used. For the vast majority of people, phrases like, ‘the weight of the world on my shoulders,’ and ‘the whole world was watching’ are relegated to the status of obviously untrue hyperbole. 

For a select few however,  that comically unrealistic hyperbole is reality.

And while it may seem easy to think that unbelievable physical skills goes hand-in-hand with equally unbelievable mental skills, the simple truth is that we all have the same vulnerability to mental health issues, even the world’s best athletes.

“Among professional athletes, data shows that up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety,” explained the non-profit organization, Athletes for Hope, which advocates for the mental health of athletes worldwide.

Infact, when world famous olympic gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the 2021 Tokyo Olympics due to mounting mental health issues, she turned to the very language most people would deem hyperbolic to describe her very real situation.

“I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me, but damn, sometimes it’s hard.” Biles said on social media following her withdrawal. 

Despite her openness about the issue however, she still faced backlash from many for this perceived show of weakness, including from well-known British media personality Piers Morgan.

In a tweet following the announcement of Biles’ withdrawal, the broadcaster with almost 30 years of experience asked, “Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport? What a joke.”

Even though Morgan was very openly and widely criticized for his comments that the vast majority of people saw as insensitive and misinformed, the persistence of these criticisms of athletes doing what’s best for their mental health raises a crucial dilema:

How do we uplift those who dedicate themselves to athletics without turning them into objectified ‘superhumans’ without any perceived human qualities?
A diverse variety of advocacy groups offer an even more diverse variety of programs to help the mental health of athletes, including Athletes for Hope.

“Many manage symptoms with therapy, medication, eating a healthy diet or exercise. Research has shown that the benefits of exercise can boost moods and improve overall mental health,” Athletes for Hope said.

This is something accentuated by former Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who became vocal about his struggles with depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts, during his time as an Olympian.

A documentary telling his story titled The Weight of Gold, detailed these struggles by shedding light on the true stakes at play, but also ways he’s found to keep himself safe.

“I thought of myself as ‘just a swimmer,’” Phelps said in the documentary, which was made following his admittance into a hospital after serious fears he would attempt suicide, “And not a human being.”

As easy as it would be to conclude that the best way to relieve athlete pressure is to give them more time away from their stressful athletic environment, Phelps would be the first to say that that’s incorrect.

In an interview for Business Insider, when discussing his mental health, Phelps  said that exercise was “essential” for him, and that, “it helps me be the authentic me, the real me.”

“The more people who are famous and come out publicly about their mental health, the better,” said Victor Hong, the director psychiatric emergency department at University of Michigan Health, “Backlash will happen, but somewhere out there we know there are young athletes who sought help because a role model spoke up, and we know that will continue.”

As more and more athletes speak out, and more and more aren’t intimidated by the backlash they face, more and more people won’t see them as a living hyperbole, a living figure of speech, and instead see them as a real person.