Sportswomen of the year: The candid superstars who opened the floodgates to make sport stronger

 Sportswomen of the year: The candid superstars who opened the floodgates to make sport stronger

The world was at Naomi Osaka’s feet as she sprang into 2021, claiming a fourth grand slam at the Australian Open in January, and predicted to dominate the hard-court circuit – including a home Olympics in Tokyo in July. 

In devastating form, there was no stopping her. To see her weep through a press conference, then, after crashing out of the US Open in September and following a withdrawal from the French Open in June, was a marker of the unexpected and heartbreaking year it had become. 

“When I win I don’t feel happy,” she said, in a speech of impact that continues to reverberate around sport. “It feels more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal,” she said, wiping away tears, before confirming that she would be taking another break from tennis. 

Over and above trophies and medals, Osaka’s influence this year can be measured by the conversation around sport and mental health. From Michael Phelps to Ben Stokes, Simone Biles to British diver Jack Laugher, suddenly it was OK not to be OK. 

Having announced that she was opting out of media responsibilities at Roland-Garros, Osaka was lambasted by critics, and tournament organisers threatened her with fines. As the sporting establishment struggled to comprehend her stance, Osaka revealed she had been suffering with depression for three years, which had prompted her decision to avoid the media. 

From then on she played intermittently. But off the court, things had changed. The floodgates had opened and sport and mental health became the de facto discussion of the year. Osaka had created a new normal as athletes around the world agreed: sometimes, sport has to come second. 

Following in the Japanese player’s footsteps, athletes stood in front of cameras and bared their souls, opening up on the emotions they had been stifling. “This summer, I had to take a step back from competition to recover from an invisible injury,” said Biles, on receiving her lifetime achievement award from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year ceremony this month. “That was the hardest decision of my life, but I chose to speak out to show mental health struggles are nothing to be ashamed of.” 

When a mental block forced the most decorated gymnast of all time to pull out of the majority of her scheduled events at the Tokyo Games, her public acknowledgement of the private obstacles she had been trying to overcome gained her widespread support. 

When the American finally returned to the competition floor a week later, and won a bronze medal on the beam, her bravery dominated the headlines. “I was expecting some criticism at first, but what happened was the complete opposite,” the 24-year-old reflected. “The support and encouragement I received was overwhelming, and it fills my heart to think of those positive words.” 

That change in the perception of women, especially, demonstrated a shift in public opinion. Studies have traditionally shown that men are received more positively than women when they cry, particularly in environments seen as masculine – such as sport.

Paul Gascoigne’s tears, or Andy Murray’s, have been fondly immortalised, but sportswomen have a different set of stereotypes to navigate, where tears signal weakness, poor judgment, or simply being difficult. 

The stakes are higher still when you consider the pressure on every women’s sport competition to be “the perfect advert” for the game. Already at a disadvantage through funding and global reach, female athletes have felt wary of rocking the boat or showing vulnerability, for fear of putting off the potential fans they are expected to recruit. But Shaunagh Brown’s ­ post-match interview at the Premier 15s final earlier this year, where Harlequins stormed to their first league title, encapsulated the emerging confidence in athletes to be bolder in their message. 

“This is not just about rugby, this is not just about the sport, it’s about women and women’s sport,” Brown said, choking up as she delivered her rallying cry at Kingsholm. “It’s about putting us on a platform and knowing that we can do it, come out and put on an international standard of rugby in front of fans. We are here and I challenge anyone who thinks women’s rugby isn’t good enough or women aren’t good enough, because we are.” 

It was a rare opportunity for Brown, or any female rugby player, to address a primetime television audience, and she used the brimming emotions of victory to bring home her message. Sportswomen with all levels of pressure and expectation on their shoulders were unapologetically emotional for all different reasons. 

An injury to British track star Dina Asher-Smith saw her withdraw from the Olympic 200 metres event she had hoped to win as reigning world champion. Her live trackside interview will live long in the memory for its candidness. “We’ll let me cry for a minute,” she said, raw and unapologetic. 

Paralympic swimmer Ellie Robinson’s post-race tears went viral as she took her final bow. Despite going home empty-handed, the former Paralympic champion captivated the nation with an impassioned poolside monologue. “I don’t want this to be a story of sorrow and heartbreak,” she said, eyes welling up, “I want this to be a story of triumph, because it is. Even though I have deteriorated physically, my hip is in a very bad way, I think I am mentally stronger than ever.” 

In a moment where sport had taught them to shrink away, quietly retiring in pain, sportswomen spoke up, challenging what is traditionally seen as an acceptable response to adversity. Whether in victory or defeat, despair or elation, women in sport let the tears flow in 2021. And their message was all the stronger for it.

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