A Lesson In Compassion, Tolerance And Humanity

Mike Davis, Regional Director in the Middle East, explains why the enduring legacy of the Tokyo Olympics will likely be the attention it brought to issues that go beyond the field of competition.

After my wife and I recently travelled back to the UAE with our own “caravan” consisting of three kids and over 150kgs of luggage, I took the time to reflect on this year’s Olympic Games; what made it special, what made it memorable, what was the standout performance?

For me, one seminal moment shines far brighter than the rest.

Our 5-year-old daughter is mesmerised by the sport of gymnastics and, above all, Simone Biles.
The excitement she showed when watching the young superstar in action, captivated by her every movement, was endearing to see.

So, when her hero stunned the world by telling her trainer “I don’t want to do it. I am done” and very publicly walked away from the women’s team competition after just one vault, we expected heartbreak in the Davis household.  Instead, there was a measured acceptance of the fact that Simone had simply been overwhelmed  by a high stress situation. We understood that she is human. That she needed time and space to focus on herself and her own mental wellbeing.

We may not have had that same reaction five years ago, and I believe this is testament to the fact that the topic of mental health has become so much more commonplace; there is far more acceptance that it’s ‘ok not to be ok’ these days.

As a family it is a subject we talk openly about at home, using these important moments from sport, or otherwise, to discuss and debate the challenges that exist, and to highlight the importance of dealing with these injuries head on.

Since withdrawing, Biles has talked powerfully and poignantly about the mental health challenges of elite sport. She has taken a brave stand by admitting that she hoped speaking out would have a more profound effect on sport and society than winning multiple gold medals. And I’m sure she is right. I believe it will help catalyse a much greater degree of understanding that mental health exists in all of us, and sometimes you need a break, no matter who you are.

And it is not just Biles that is taking this courageous, assured, and measured position regarding her injuries.  Sportsmen and women all around the world are highlighting the fact that mental injuries are just as serious and severe as physical ones.

It is well publicised that the supposed poster child of the Tokyo Olympics, Naomi Osaka, took a self-enforced leave of absence from tennis. And after making her return, is still struggling with the weight of pressure and expectation that rests on her shoulders.

As the great man Nelson Mandela once said.  “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does”.  And the greatest of all sporting spectacles, the Olympics, has provided the backdrop to drive a greater degree of awareness and understanding about mental health.

I firmly believe that the positive impact of Simone Biles’ actions will be felt for decades to come.

For Japan, the Olympics has helped them address another key topic that has traditionally been underrepresented; whether they can be both multicultural and Japanese.  This year the Japanese team was not only the country’s biggest, but also the most diverse it has ever fielded. It included nearly three dozen athletes of mixed parentage, reflecting a gradual but important change in a still largely homogeneous country.

The international attention around the Olympics has also led to soul-searching and introspection over discriminatory opinions and remarks that may have previously gone unchallenged.

With the start of this year’s Paralympics, Japan has the chance to use this iconic moment in time to address a topic very close to my own heart – the acceptance and inclusion in society of people with disabilities.

Studies showed the 2012 Paralympic Games improved public perceptions towards people with disabilities in the UK by 65%, not to mention the legacy it has left.  The visibility the games provided in Rio 2016 was unprecedented, reaching a global audience of 4.1 billion people, including a domestic cumulative audience of 472 million – helping challenge national stereotypes.

I so hope that in years to come, when we look back at Tokyo 2020, we learn of the profound impact the Games has had on Japan and its people. For that’s what sport can do; challenge convention, pursue the extraordinary and inspire a better world.

Anyone connected with sport knows this deep down. But sometimes we need to step away, take a break and regain our perspective for it to come back into focus.