Ben Stokes is taking a break.
The Christchurch-born English cricketer and hero of the 2019 Cricket World Cup is certainly one of the biggest stars in the game. But his mental health isn’t great. Understandably, the death of his Dad last year has had a really big impact on him. Because of Covid-19, and at the behest of his Dad, Ben Stokes couldn’t make it back it back to Christchurch for the funeral. Now, he wants to take some time. The break is indefinite.
That’s three very high-profile sportspeople then, in the space of just a couple of months. Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and now Ben Stokes, have all come out and said they need to step back.
I’ve heard some pretty lousy takes on Simone Biles’ decision, this week. It was suggested to me by a colleague that the young American gymnast lacks resilience. I would have thought that getting up in the small hours of the morning almost every day for your entire life to manipulate your body in extreme and painful ways, surviving being sexually abused by your coach, winning thirty Olympic and World Championship golds, becoming so good at gymnastics that judges don’t know how to score you and they literally have to brainstorm for the names of the things you are performing, then using your platform to go public about your harrowing sexual abuse in the hope it will help other survivors, all by your early twenties, actually displayed a level of resilience that most of us could only dream of.
I wish she was competing. Simone Biles is the biggest star of the games. And unlike basketball or tennis, the Olympics represents the pinnacle of the sport in gymnastics. Her choice not to compete would not have been made lightly. I respect her decision.
What do Naomi Osaka, Ben Stokes, and Simone Biles all have in common? All three have excelled in their respective sports. All three have been at the very top of their respective games. Perhaps there is something to learn from this about the pressures on athletes to maintain elite levels of performance. Excellence brings with it the expectation of continued excellence.
We can’t, in one breath, bemoan the mental health crisis in this country, and then criticise these athletes in the next. They deserve our support, not our criticism. Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and Ben Stokes have all pulled off superhuman athletic performances. It doesn’t mean they’re not human.