The Darker Side of Professional Sports

Ajinkya Nene SY BSc

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Imagine if, through some unfortunate happenstance which may or may not feature a renegade time machine, you are transported to one of the most bustling places in the ancient world: the Roman Colosseum.

As you take in the cheering crowds and the general air of gaiety and festivity that heralds the much anticipated ‘Games’, you might hear one of the most chilling sentences ever uttered by an athlete in any arena ever:

 Ave Caesar morituri te salutant!” 

“Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you!”

Nothing that has been said at any modern-day combat sporting event can approach the air of finality and purpose that permeates through every word of this expression. 

These gruesome and ancient bloodsports have largely been relegated by today’s society to occupy their due stations as relics of a bygone past. However, the essence behind those long-gone sports and the relationship between the audiences and the practitioners embody the core of what is modern sports culture. 

Although we, in our world today seem to have rightfully moved past such barbaric displays for the sake of entertainment, the fact still remains that sports, out of all the performing arts, involve an innate vulnerability with their viewership.  Just like the Roman gladiators entertained the masses all those years ago with death, athletes do so today with the efforts and sacrifices taken over an entire lifetime, dedicated to perfecting their performance of a sport.

Sports and competition by their very nature are zero sum games. For one to triumph, another must fall, must falter. For every feat of strength shown on the field, there has to be a moment of weakness or at the very least a moment that falls short of utter perfection. 

In their pursuit of greatness and glory, professional athletes bear not only the weight of their own aspirations but also the hopes and expectations of entire nations. Merely succeeding at one’s chosen sport is not enough, they must become symbols of society and culture, expected to lead by example and grace. 

As a result, athletes often are subject to the whims of politics and intergovernmental machinations. As their beloved sport is fashioned into a tool in the grand scheme of national rivalries and feuds.

 Indeed, in times of international strain or conflict, it is often the professional sportspeople who take the brunt of the backlash, holding the line with diplomats and toeing the same line alongside the politicians when it comes to whatever the prevailing sentiments are back home. 

However, it is one of the worst-kept secrets of the sporting world that the sporting organisations and bodies at both the national and international levels for many immensely popular sports are riddled with issues related to corruption. Their general disregard for the well-being of the sportspeople under their umbrella also does not exactly lead to a conducive environment for athletes. This coupled with the nature of audiences and their expectations (football, anyone?) lay the foundation for a near systemic epidemic of mental health and wellbeing concerns for sportspeople. 

 It is no wonder that over the years, top athletes irrespective of their sport have faced mental health problems directly related to the burdens of intense competition. This is especially true for those at the very top of their fields, despite their drive for perfectionism being motivation enough, being a household name brings with it an immense pressure to perform consistently at every single tournament. 

In 2021, Simone Biles, widely regarded as one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, withdrew from the Olympic Games for reasons of mental health. It was a bold move, risking ire from the public to step down and not compete despite the lack of a physical injury. As the most decorated gymnast of all time in the Gymnastic Championships, her extraordinary skill should never be questioned. However, her withdrawal highlights the profound toll that competition can take on even the most veteran of athletes. The immense pressure placed on athletes to not only compete but win should never be underestimated.

More recently, the currently highest-ranked chess player in the world, Magnus Carlsen elected not to defend his World Chess Championship title, attributing it to a lack of motivation. Magnus holds the distinction of achieving the highest rating in the ELO rating system used in professional chess and was a favourite for the championship. Presumably, the highly taxing effort associated with the defence of the title was no longer worth the hype. 

The 2023 Chess Championship also became a point of contention on the global stage due to the backdrop of the divisive political nature of the Russia-Ukraine War. Once again, sports became a medium of nationalistic and political discourse, a representation of the deeper state of human affairs rather than just a game. Russian players inevitably had to take a stand and that they most certainly did. Forty-four top Russian players, including the Championship contender Ian Nepomniachtchi, signed an open letter addressed to President Putin calling the war a catastrophe and an imploration for the cessation of hostilities. Rising above and beyond the consequences of publishing such a letter in a country in a state of open war, they showed true sportsmanship and a recognition of the bond that sportspeople share regardless of national boundaries. 

Ian Nepomniachtchi and Magnus Carlsen. Image Credit. Photo by Pascal Simon

The field of sports psychology is an emerging one and continues to grow daily in its impact as more and more athletes realise that mental well-being is just as important as physical. On game day, the outcome is often determined by seemingly trivial minutiae. When all that pressure to win hinges on your performance in every single millisecond, nerves play a most crucial role. 

The protesting wrestlers. Image Source. Photo by R.V. Moorthy

As of writing this article, one of the most discussed news events in the country is the alleged sexual harassment and death threats faced by India’s top wrestlers. Regardless of any individual’s political stance, it should be recognised that when we as a people expect so much from our athletes, it is of paramount importance to nurture them and ensure their well-being. Not only as sportspeople of the country but also as human beings with rights. 

Anything less than that would be a disservice to those who have dedicated their lives to perfecting their craft for the nation. 

Ajinkya Nene SY BSc

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