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How We Perceive Athletes

Updated: Nov 12, 2022

By Claire Kim

During the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles’s withdrawal from the team final and women’s individual gymnastics competitions highlighted the significance of mental health in high-level sports. As one of the most prominent figures in gymnastics since 2011, Simone Biles’s focus on her health and safety showed how much the world of competitive sport has progressed.

The rise of the mental health movement in America is perhaps one of the biggest and most recent. Biles, who came down with “the twisties,” explained that she could be severely injured by losing control of her body and that her physical health came hand in hand with mental health. Although many people criticized Biles by saying that professional athletes should deal with the pressure of being in competitions, especially in a team event, many praised her for recognizing her own needs and the potential danger she was in. High mental health awareness in the United States and the culture of seeing professional athletes, celebrities, and other careers as individuals led to supporters across the nation. Many other athletes and public figures were among these supporters, including Michelle Obama, who tweeted, “We are proud of you, and we are rooting for you.” In response to many, Biles tweeted that she is “more than her accomplishments and gymnastics,” and commendations for speaking up and making a decision that was right for herself were widespread.

On the other hand, in Korea, where individuals’ achievements and success are expected, athletes are the extensions of their nation. The elite sport system in Korea identifies talented people early on and trains them in their specific sport to represent the country, often with the government’s support. As a result, they are constantly expected to achieve success for Korea, while sports in America allow for a more personal life aside from someone’s status as an athlete. Compared to America, where an individual’s health and personal goals are considered more important, Korea’s competitive environment puts more pressure on athletes to be at the top regardless of their conditions.

Oh Joo-han, a Kenyan marathon runner for Korea, received criticism during a situation similar to Simone Biles’. The athlete withdrew from the race at the 15 km mark due to a thigh injury along with 30 other runners who were not able to complete the marathon. An MBC commentator said, “완전히 찬물을 끼얹내요 찬물을 끼얹어” (“he ruined the mood”) as Oh was expected to medal in the event.

Although these views are still prominent in Korea, they do not represent the entire country’s beliefs. While Korea’s competitive society still places value upon goal setting and results, general sentiments are changing; many people are beginning to emphasize athletes’ health and safety while saying the era of elite sports is over. The media still reported Korea’s six gold medals in the Olympics to be “disappointing.” Nevertheless, Korea’s turn from collectivism to individualism as well as easing of cultural differences can be felt with the encouragement to enjoy sports for what they are—entertainment—and appreciate athletes for who they are—people.

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