When Quatar’s Mutaz Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi embraced after becoming joint Olympic high jump champions, it was clear that their personal victories would be eclipsed by the meaning the moment would hold for the rest of the world watching.
Two friends, competitors and elite athletes had joyously decided to share success, to upend the traditional meaning of a winner and stand together on a podium to accept a gold medal each. Soon after the conclusion of their high jump final, Tamberi’s Italian teammate Lamont Marcell Jacobs won the men’s 100m sprint, becoming the first ever Italian Olympic champion in this event.
He was met at the finish line by an elated Tamberi, the Italian flag worn on his shoulders like a scarf, who threw his arms around Jacobs as the two celebrated the wholesome serendipity of their success. Jacobs later told an interviewer that he and Tamberi had been playing Playstation the evening before, discussing the possibility that they could both be Olympic champions. They had decided it was far too unlikely.
Amongst the murky politics of awarding and hosting the games, the Olympics continue to be held up as a pinnacle of both human achievement and sporting success. Approximately 16 or 17 days of intense competition occur every four years, the quadrennial cycle sustaining the uniqueness of the event, whilst ramping up the pressure on those participating. The weight of injuries or a poor run of form is so much heavier when absence from one tournament can stretch past the peak of a career.
This had been the case for Gianmarco Tamberi, who was injured at the last Olympics, watching the event in a plaster cast. He had then been encouraged through his rehabilitation and the rebuilding of his career by close friend Mutaz Barshim. Their joint gold medal served as a marker of their athletic excellence, but also, importantly, their friendship.
And so it feels particularly pertinent that while this has been a momentous and often wonderful summer of sport, it’s also been a critical one for athletes and professional sportspeople in communicating precisely the impact of the spectacle on their health.
From Naomi Osaka to Ben Stokes, Tyrone Mings to Simone Biles, individuals have been both compelled and empowered by the gathering momentum of mental health awareness to put ahead their needs and remind the world how much a sporting competition involves their minds as well as their bodies.
In doing this, athletes have been able to acknowledge and articulate the demands of performing for an audience, of participating in sport as both a competition and entertainment. They’ve collapsed the line between the expectations placed on them by fans and the expectations they carry for themselves, with the former receding into the background.
Although the fan-athlete dynamic is a particularly unique one, by recognising the impact of the spectators gaze and the pressure of a hopeful public on their wellbeing, these athletes have shown us yet again how many ways there are to set an example.
These individual expressions of agency have perhaps also arrived as a response to the increasingly feverish emphasis placed on sport as a distraction. While parts of the world stubbornly and carelessly attempt to emerge from a devastating pandemic, other countries continue to suffer under it. This can only have contributed to the intensity heaped on professional athletes in the last few months. It’s hard to escape the pronouncements that these sporting events are opportunities for light in otherwise dark days. We’re told these are special moments that can bring people together, as though shared grief isn’t somehow enough.
In many ways, the sporting tournaments of this summer, from the European Championships and Wimbledon to the conclusion of the World Test Championship in men’s Cricket, have attempted to return us to the world before, to present an image of normality in the hopes that we might collectively believe it.
Despite Covid-enforced absences of both athletes and full-capacity crowds, the resumption of the sporting cycle against the backdrop of a global death toll of more than four million people heaps a very specific pressure on those participating. In the face of immense human suffering, sporting joy is of little practical consequence, but is equally tasked with providing the frivolity that has been absent from our lives during the past 18 months.
In England, one of the overriding narratives going into and during the European Championships was about how the men’s national team offered hope and gave the English public something to smile about. The pressure of placing the responsibility for the emotional health of an entire country on the team felt excessive.
With a final played at home in Wembley Stadium and penalties as the conclusion, it was unsurprising that the reaction to England’s eventual loss was so stark and so wrenching. This was especially true for Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford, who each received abuse for simply daring to be Black and on the losing side.
“I really believed we would win this for you. I’m sorry that we couldn’t bring it home for you this year.” When Saka posted this statement on Instagram a few days after the loss, the closeness of his language exposed how keenly this expectation and the eventual disappointment had been felt, not least because of the vitriol unleashed by sections of England fans. People gathered with love too, publicly and privately, to counteract the hatred and be the lasting impression of this special tournament run.
But, unlike previous years, this England team genuinely did feel different. The very obvious camaraderie and togetherness between members of the squad was delightful. Under Gareth Southgate, post-match recovery was a more relaxed affair and included hot yoga, friendly basketball games and of course, kicking back with inflatables in the swimming pool. All of this was faithfully and regularly shared through the FA’s social media channels, embedding this Euros camp in popular memory for the right reasons.
Meanwhile, their collective decision to continue taking the knee before games as a symbol of the ongoing struggle against racism, despite frenzied, absurd protests from some England fans, was heartening. This insistence on solidarity followed the same collective decision made by players at all Premier League teams last season and will likely extend through to the season still to come.
After Simone Biles pulled out of a number of Olympic gymnastics finals, she explained that she was “having a little bit of the twisties”. Other gymnasts and sportspeople rallied around her, explaining what this phrase meant practically (“when your brain and body disconnect”) whilst ensuring Biles felt seen and supported. This was echoed by her teammates on Team USA, who celebrated Simone Biles as a person and a friend. Not long after, Biles tweeted that “the outpouring [of] love and support I’ve received has made me realize [sic] I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics, which I never truly believed before.”
Although it seems as though this summer of sport has brought the mental wellbeing of the world’s greatest athletes to the forefront, there is an alternative story to be found too. Fans across the world have been able to witness what solidarity looks like in real time. How the willingness of Simone Biles to prioritise herself held open space for Tyrone Mings to discuss his own struggles of confidence, and how the desire to temporarily redefine winning enabled two friends to stand together in triumph. Rooting for unity amongst athletes feels like the most worthwhile way for fans to invest not just in sporting success, but critically, sporting joy.