A Spoiled Sports Fan: Mikaela Shiffrin’s Olympics proves we don’t respect our athletes

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Credit: Theo Ghosh

WSPN’s Emily Roberge discusses the implications of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and how the sports world is excluding Russia from certain athletic events.

Emily Roberge

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: athletes are humans. Under all that glam and fame, they are just like you and me: imperfect. The pressure and expectations for Olympians is immense, even at times unbearable. If we took anything away from Simone Biles’ conversation on mental health, we should cut alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin some slack, but why can’t we seem to do it?

This conversation of mental health in athletics really started when Biles brought light to her mental health struggles. In the 2020 Tokyo Olympics last summer, Biles stunned her fans and the sports world when she withdrew from the individual all-around, the team final, the finals for vault, floor and uneven bars to focus on her mental health. She opened the world’s eye to a discussion that is long overdue, paving the way for other athletes to feel comfortable discussing their mental health struggles.

Well, we have some work to do. We must reevaluate our mindsets and everything we know. It’s ingrained in us to idolize an athlete, place them on pedestals and give them godly status. We can’t bear the thought of our favorite athlete falling short from victory. Selfish, yes, but it is the only thing we know. It’s almost like we live through these athletes and place all of our struggles onto them, as if they will fix everything when they bring home gold. But, what happens when they don’t? To put it simply, we question their talent.

That’s exactly what many did to Shiffrin. She was shamed by even the people who are supposed to understand the sport better than anyone: the announcers. Every alpine skiing fan knows that Mikaela Shiffrin is the “queen of slalom.” She was favored to sweep the slalom at the 2022 Tokyo Olympics; however, she couldn’t seem to do it. She was off. After her second unfinished run in the Olympics, failing to medal again, the announcers called her out saying, “What a mistake. What a disappointment. This will live in infamy for the rest of time.” This is where the problem lies.

Not only did these announcers bash Shiffrin, but NBC failed to protect her privacy. The cameras proceeded to zoom in on her as she sat on the ground holding back tears for 15 minutes. In such a raw, emotional moment, all the broadcasters seemed to care about was the drama. Athletes’ emotions and mental health should not be at the expense of entertainment and views. It infuriates me. Clearly, the announcers have little sense of decency and understanding for ski racing.

Ski racing is completely a mental sport. You can get in your head so easily, trust me. I’ve been ski racing for 13 years, and I’m still going today. If you are just the slightest bit off mentally, it can ruin your whole race. I’ve entered periods where I just can’t seem to perform and finish a run; it’s like a dark hole that just keeps getting deeper and deeper. If I’m being completely honest, I’m in one right now, and I can’t seem to find my way back to what I once was. I don’t know if I will ever get back to that point again. I can’t explain why.

I have it easy though. I don’t have the whole world watching me, branding me a disappointment if I’m not at the top of the podium. I won’t be a national disgrace if I don’t succeed. Skiing has the reputation of being a sport full of burnouts. I could name 30 skiers I know who have burnt out and lost their passion. I’m the first one that comes to my mind. It’s a brutal sport. But, I don’t think it’s the end for Shiffrin, rather her first time in adversity after being the best for so long. She doesn’t know anything better. At the least, we can give her some respect.

Shiffrin has had her share of setbacks recently. Two years ago, almost to the day of her race, her father passed away. That’s a hard pill for anyone to swallow. For any that know Shiffrin’s story, they know just how important of a figure her father was in her life. Mix in the immense pressures and mental health struggles, and I don’t think anyone can handle this. If you doubt her, give it a try for yourself.

If you took anything away from reading this, let it be one thing: think before you speak. I’ve heard people recently say “she sucks,” “she is no longer is good” and “she choked.” Until you can be a two-time Olympics gold medalist, you really have no right to speak.

In an interview after her fall in the slalom, Shiffrin’s words really stuck with me. Not because they are inspirational, but rather because they are heartbreaking. “I’d feel like I had to gag or like my throat was closing and I couldn’t breathe anymore,” she said when talking about her performance anxiety. “I won’t ever get over this.” Who knew my idol growing up felt this way? I used to be ignorant thinking mental health struggles and performance anxiety would never affect someone as elite as her. I was wrong.

If this opened my eyes to anything, it’s that we haven’t made much progress since Simone Biles brought the conversation of mental health to the forefront. That’s really discouraging.