We are near the end of one of the most extraordinary Olympics, delayed for a year and held while a global pandemic is still raging with cases rising in the host nation of Japan. The pandemic and its after effects have impacted the athletes who have sacrificed so much to reach this pinnacle. Some were unable to train as they routinely would without access to practice facilities, others peaked last year but did not make the cut in 2021, creating opportunities for some who might have missed out had the event occurred in 2020. Some athletes, even fully vaccinated, were forced to withdraw due to COVID-19 exposure or diagnoses.

As with Olympics in the past and those to unfold in the future, there are countless stories of fortitude, perseverance, strength and talent. Athletes competing over incredible odds such as overcoming devastating injuries, surviving war or terror in their home countries, or aching for a loved one who is battling or has succumbed to COVID-19. Adding to the daunting pressures that accompany these competitions, athletes are competing without the customary spectators cheering them on at live venues and without their families supporting them from the stands. These conditions are far from ideal and are taking a unique toll on the many talented competitors in the belated “2020” Olympics.

There are many heroes, but this year there are two Olympic athletes who demonstrated courage by doing something we are often afraid to do. They simply said “No” to continuing with public performances because the stress became unbearable. By now, we likely all know their names – Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles. Some have criticized them for taking a stand to protect their mental health rather than forging ahead despite their best judgment that they needed to retreat. Doing this on a public stage is no small feat.

Tennis prodigy Naomi Osaka took a stand before the Olympics by declining to participate in post-competition media interviews that she found demoralizing and offensive. Despite the impact on her career and the hostile reaction from some that her contract mandated she submit, she accepted the consequences and stood her ground. Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father and a dual Japanese-American citizen, went on to light the Olympic torch at the start of this year’s games. Although expected to win a gold medal in tennis, Osaka lost in the third round unleashing a torrent of criticism and racist comments about whether she was an appropriate exemplar of an authentic Japanese person.

The GOAT (“Greatest of All Time”) gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the team competition after she lost her way literally and figuratively while competing in the vault event. She was not injured physically, which most would have understood as a reason for withdrawing, but admitted mental health challenges led to her decision.  According to Biles: “I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to.” “I’m a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics. I feel like I’m also not having as much fun.”  Although Biles was expected to dazzle the world with her performance in Japan leading to multiple gold medals individually and for the US team, by withdrawing her team faced an uphill battle. Her teammates rallied, but without Biles leading the charge, they came in second to the Russian women gymnasts. Biles also withdrew from the individual all-around competition to concentrate on her mental health. But, after taking time for herself, she went on to prevail in the balance beam event, taking home a bronze medal.

There are some who criticize Osaka and Biles for walking away from these challenges or for failing to win gold medals at the height of their athletic careers. Some might even think they are not tough enough or that their decisions reflect cowardice. I strongly disagree. I commend them for their maturity and courage. For having the self-awareness and strength of character to stand up for themselves, to refrain from succumbing to public pressure, and to decline to push themselves beyond their breaking points. Osaka and Biles should be applauded for their resolve to say “No.” Living their authentic selves is the ultimate award, even more valuable than winning a gold medal if it meant losing themselves along the way.

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