Opinion / by Wanyuan Song
As more and more athletes hit the headlines after stepping back from their sport to preserve their mental health, our understanding of the relationship between success and happiness is being challenged. After all, is success more important than our own wellbeing? Wanyuan Song examines what 'winning' should truly mean.
When the news of leading gymnast Simon Biles withdrawing from the vault and uneven bars finals at the Tokyo Olympics broke out, the world seemed shocked.
The four-time Olympic gold-medallist carried the hope of the whole US to lead its women’s team to shine on the world stage. Yet the hope proved to be too heavy to carry.
“You feel the weight of the world,” she said, “We're people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back.”
This isn’t the first time top athletes pulled out of an international game due to mental health problems. The world’s number 2 women’s tennis player Naomi Osaka quit the French Open earlier this year after being fined for not speaking to the press.
The 23-year-old found it hard to face the press which routinely asks the players the harsh question: why did you lose?
The Japanese player tweeted: “Perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny on a rare occasion without being subject to strict sanctions.”
Why do we want to win?
We all have heard the word “participation is more important than winning” but seldom have we paid attention to the losers. And seldom do we want to lose ourselves.
That’s because worshipping the win is deeply ingrained in our DNA. Psychologists explain that, as gregarious animals, humans have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed favourably by our own kind. And winning helps us secure attention.
What’s more, winning lifts the mood of the people – not just the contestant but the audience too – as it stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine and other chemicals, which make the human brain feel happy.
At a time when the Coronavirus pandemic brings endless gloom, a win at the Olympics will strongly boost a country’s spirit. And Japan, the host country, needs it more than any other.
Surveys show that less than 40% of the Japanese people support the event. The scepticism over the safety of the Games amid a pandemic has led to months of protests.
The International Olympic Committee said at a press conference prior to the opening ceremony that “we are also confident once the Japanese people will see the Japanese athletes successfully performing in the Olympic Games then the attitude may become less emotion, for not saying less aggressive.”
As of writing, Japan now ranks third in the medals table, just behind China and the US. But the joy of winning did not defuse tension between people and the government.
Dozens gathered at the Japanese Prime Minister’s residence at the end of the week, calling on the government to stop the games after a rise in new coronavirus cases broke the country’s highest total for the third consecutive day. Japanese infectious disease expert Kentaro Iwata said that people can no longer "stand it" and the Prime Minister should just say 'Olympic, I'll cancel it'."
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Winning isn’t everything
Winning certainly is not a panacea. The desperate pursuit for it, on the contrary, can be harmful.
A study in the 1980s found that more than half of the aspiring athletes are willing to take a deadly drug in exchange for winning every game they enter. And research in 2018 found that up to 14% of athletes would accept a fatal cardiovascular condition in exchange for an Olympic gold medal.
But athletes aren’t the only people obsessed with wins at any price. Sacrifice and success are like two sides of a coin, and in order to stand on the podium of life, some forgo marriages for better careers, health for making more money, and morality for gripping onto more power.
And the result of winning? Well, it is not a guarantee of happiness either.
Research shows that some Olympic medallists may experience the “post-Olympic blues” after returning home. Others may break down mentally when they can no longer win.
Even for those that dominated their sport, continuing to win is the only way to maintain long-term happiness. Success is an incentive for people to achieve more because there is always something bigger and better.
This Sisyphean struggle is called the hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation, in psychology, which suggests satisfaction wears off with time and the winners will run on to the next reward to avoid feeling left behind.
When Osaka and Biles announced that they would abandon the chance of winning more games to care for their mental health, it reminds us once again that winning is not everything.
After all, what is the point of winning something but getting no enjoyment out of it?
Maybe next time when we feel blue about losing or failing something, we could give ourselves a bit more compassion. Instead of asking “why didn’t I win it?”, we could ask “have I enjoyed it?”