Simone Biles and Ben Stokes prove positive social change in sports
Instead of more medals, more compassion. Instead of extraordinary superheroes, brilliant human beings. Instead of a chest-beating accompaniment to “the best ever” chant, simple expressions of pure joy. What a fascinating year of sport, where what happens on the pitch is now much more connected to what happens off it. And what incredible leadership from sportsmen and women across the world who have gone beyond the traditional boundaries of the sporting world to show us a better way to think, behave and connect.
In the Euros Gareth Southgate demonstrated that compassion and care play a central role in high performance, on and off the pitch. He emphasised the importance of ensuring players felt a sense of belonging to the England team as a precondition for delivering their best performance on the field of play, operating at a deeper level than simple team formation and match tactics. He invested as much in those who sat on the bench, those who shared the touchline with him and those who supported the team behind the scenes as he did in those who took to the pitch. And he had no problem reaching out and comforting opponents towards whom he felt instinctive empathy and connection.
The recognition of Simone Biles as Time magazine’s athlete of the year and recipient of the BBC lifetime achievement award in a year when she won fewer medals than ever before in her career signals a significant shift. Are we, at last, starting to see beyond the shallow, short-term glimmer of those round inanimate metallic objects and realising that lasting success might look very different, with greater impact and lasting value far beyond any metal discs?
Biles’s courage to step back under the global spotlight in Tokyo and put her own mental and physical health first sent shockwaves round the traditional “win at all costs” sporting world. In perhaps her swiftest and most agile of moves, she undercut our entrenched macho narratives around pain, sacrifice and drive to be the best at all costs and exposed them for what they are – made-up narratives that diminish rather than enhance performance, controlling mantras that constrain rather than inspire athletes.
Ben Stokes (centre) is back in the England cricket team after taking an extended break this year. Photograph: Dave Hewison/Speed Media/Shutterstock
Biles has emboldened those who seek to reset the old heroic language that persists at both grassroots and elite levels of sport. There is much to do to continue to break it down. Eddie Jordan’s much quoted yet nonsensical comments that Lewis Hamilton lost the last race of the F1 season because he had become “too sporting and too nice” showed how easy it remains to perpetuate this shallow approach.
If you stop to think for a second about his comment, you realise the inherent contradictions and lack of meaning: is he suggesting that Hamilton was “nasty” for the seven years when he won his championship titles? Did he become nice all season, or was it just during the last lap of the last race of the season? It would be good if we could all pause for a moment and think before repeating any of this sort of nonsense. Hamilton’s integrity in an incredibly difficult and controversial situation should be lauded – it is there, not on the podium, that he offers the most powerful lessons.
In other sports we have found further examples of athletes who have played their part in breaking down these old heroic myths. Ben Stokes and Naomi Osaka stepped up to show that they were willing to use their platforms to lead sport in a different direction (and to cope with the inevitable social media drubbing that accompanies such bold, fresh thinking).
Their actions also served to highlight the woeful lack of leadership by managers and directors across sporting organisations. I hope those designated leaders will take time to reflect on the potential of sport to lead positive social change, affect attitudes and inspire young people to do more than become “heroes”, and take strides to catch up with these brilliant athletes.
The maturity of the next generation of sportsmen and women is as breathtaking as their performances. The unashamed joy that Sky Brown and Emma Raducanu take in their sport regardless of their results resets the foundations in a way that is desperately needed by a sporting world that has been plunging into a credibility crisis, whether through shocking doping, repugnant corruption or simply the latest round of “win at all cost ” incidences. Igwe.C/The guradian