There are so many well-worn quotes about sport and pressure. Pressure makes diamonds. Pressure is for tyres. The greatest pressure is the pressure we put on ourselves. People often say cliches exist because they’re true. Quite a lot of the time they’re also bullshit.
But then, there has never been sporting pressure quite like this. Or indeed a shared public space like the one we have now: endlessly hostile, endlessly reverent, unceasingly present.
Keith Miller famously said that pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse. The point being, when you’ve fought in a world war, pressure isn’t playing Test cricket in the 1950s. Well, Keith, the world has changed. And in the process we seem to have created a particular kind of 24-hour rolling hell for our superstar athletes.
At times this can look like some kind of unregulated social experiment. Be brilliant, constantly. Give us that thing we crave. And yes, you will be judged. You will be diced and dissected to the most minute degree. You will be asked to carry our hopes and fears, to embody our politics, to mean something, and to become even here a kind of commodity. This is unsustainable.
Naomi Osaka has already told us this, if we care to listen. Anyone can lose a tennis match, particularly an Olympic tennis match at the end of a strange, disjointed schedule during a strange, disjointed period in the life of planet Earth. She was gracious in defeat by the world No 42 Marketa Vondrousova.
Asked whether pressure was a part of it, she had the self-possession to avoid giving a definite answer. What words do you really want from me? How many billions of people are hanging, in real time, on the nuances of my answer? What kind of space have we made here? All of these might have been reasonable responses.
Osaka, who knows this world better than anyone because it is her world, eventually said: “Yes and no.” She suggested her recent mental health break hadn’t helped her performance. The question answers itself. Here is a young tennis player who has taken a mental health break, in part to avoid being asked painful questions, who is now answering painful questions about her mental health break.
Vondrousova spoke more plainly: “I can’t imagine that kind of pressure. She is the face of the Olympics.” As is Simone Biles, who has also taken a moment to breathe. Biles is a four-times Olympic champion and as tough a competitor as it’s possible to be. Nobody gets near her level, never mind the extra barriers she has had to vault, without being both of those things.
But Biles took a time out on Tuesday, and did so with grace. She didn’t have to. She doesn’t owe us more grace. She has given plenty already. There really doesn’t have to be a reason why Simone Biles might feel a little frayed, a little overexposed. A kind of violence is being applied to these people, and it is important to recognise the novelty of this.
Lose a match if you’re, say, John McEnroe in 1984, and you can disappear for a while. You can go back to your apartment and take the phone off the hook. The pressures you feel are tame, analogue celebrity pressures. There is no toxic white noise chasing you across every room, every space, every device in your home. Until very recently athletes could shrink a little, suffer in private, and emerge with only a dim shared memory of their last appearance on that stage.
Not now. Every part of your existence is public property. Biles and Osaka, these astonishingly talented women, are 24 and 23 respectively, and have lived their adult lives through this voracious digital culture barefoot, twiddling a racket, presented without a protective filter. There is no skin thick enough to shake that off indefinitely, no sense of self so powerfully detached it can get through this unbruised.
And naturally now that we have caught a glimpse of this pain there will be blame. Certainly many aspects of the mainstream media look joyless and unpleasant in this reflected light. Osaka has spoken of her struggle to answer difficult personal questions in public. Tom Daley was asked about the death of his father in victory on Monday night and spoke with a startling clarity that he owed to nobody and didn’t have to give. Imagine being asked that question in painful defeat, or when you just didn’t want to talk at all.
And yet to point the exculpatory finger of blame solely at the people holding the mics would be deeply dishonest. The shared digital voice of social media platforms carries its own far heavier weight, and will only expand and multiply from here. We all know this darkness. Imagine having that worst day, the one where mistakes are amplified and unkind words begin to bite. For the likes of Biles or Osaka, multiply that poison, that loss of self, by about five billion. What do we plan to do with this power? How are we going to behave here?
Plus of course Big Sport has a part in this pressure. So many athletes emerge from an industrialised version of their sport, a system that isn’t play or enjoyment, but a machine designed for winning. How is that supposed to play out at the current Olympics when athletes have been isolated, unable to train, and asked to emerge suddenly into the light and perform? Jade Jones gave a deeply moving interview in the bowels of the Makuhari Messe Hall on Sunday night after her defeat in the taekwondo, where she basically spoke about feeling vulnerable, isolated and unable to connect with her family.
It is easy to say that financial rewards and public exposure are offered in return for this, that to show any liking for either is to be condemned instantly as a charlatan, and ordered to suffer whatever the world may throw. Some will suggest these athletes should disconnect from the grid, become monkish, reclusive figures – or just become tougher, able to walk through this noise.
But the world isn’t like that any more. It is instead a place of unceasing noise, reverence, poison, expectation. And frankly sport looks a little done in this light. One thing is certain; the only people who really understand this world are those who are living through it in front of us. Time perhaps simply to listen.