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Biles and Osaka’s support shows progress in mental health-sports debate

Burr William Mallard

TOKYO (Reuters) – The Tokyo Olympics will be remembered by the spotlight on mental health, as even the strongest athletes have opened up about the need for care beyond muscles and ligaments.

Two of the world’s biggest stars – Simone Biles of the United States, considered by many to be the greatest gymnast of all time, and Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka – made it impossible to ignore the psychological stress of elite athletes.

Analysts and competitors say the attention the 24-year-old women have brought to the infighting among athletes reflects advances in mental health awareness, although some say the stigma remains.

Osaka shocked the tennis world by withdrawing from the French Open in May after deciding to boycott post-match press interviews. She said the reporters’ questions affected her mental health. Osaka has also not played Wimbledon.

The four-time Grand Slam champion revealed that she struggled with depression for nearly three years and returned to Tokyo to play for Japan, and was highlighted by her choice to light the Olympic pyre at the opening ceremony.

She missed the steps to return to the court and lost in the third round to the 42nd ranked world number one.

“I definitely felt there was a lot of pressure this time,” Osaka said. “I think maybe it’s because I’ve never played the Olympics before, and it was my first time here that much.”

Biles walked away after the jump in the team game, his first event, but came back for the last, the final of the crossbar. She won a silver and a bronze in Tokyo – not exactly the six golds she was striving for – reaching seven Olympic medals.

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“I was just proud to go out and compete, after what I went through,” Biles said, when the race was over.

“Now I’m going to focus on myself a little bit more,” he said, “instead of pushing everything under the rug.”

“People need to realize that we are, after all, human, not just entertainment. There are things going on behind the scenes that people have no idea about.”

((Translation of São Paulo Newsroom, 55 11 5047 2984)) Reuters CMO