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Despite battling mental health issues, Olympic athletes inspire viewers

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Fencer Gu Bon-gil celebrates a point against Italy during the final of the men's team sabre fencing event at the Tokyo Olympics at Makuhari Messe Hall B in Chiba, Wednesday. Yonhap
Fencer Gu Bon-gil celebrates a point against Italy during the final of the men's team sabre fencing event at the Tokyo Olympics at Makuhari Messe Hall B in Chiba, Wednesday. Yonhap

By Kwak Yeon-soo

To compete in the Olympics, the world's biggest sporting event, athletes must be mentally strong. But many have started to speak candidly about their own battles with mental health issues, sparking open discussions and even inspiring viewers.

On Wednesday, U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, withdrew from the women's team event and individual all-around final to focus on her mental health.

High-profile tennis player Naomi Osaka, who was unexpectedly eliminated in the third-round, confessed that the huge expectations she had to shoulder were hard to handle. "I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this," she said.

Korean athletes too have recently acknowledged how mounting pressure and criticism affect their mental health and well-being.

Local broadcaster KBS's commentator, Ki Bo-bae, a four-time Olympic medalist, stressed that participating in the games is "about fighting with yourself, not fighting your competitors" and advised athletes not to worry about thinking that they must put on an impressive display.

Many revealed that they were able to release their anxiety through the support of their teammates, fellow athletes and fans.

During the men's sabre team final, fencer Gu Bon-gil was briefly caught on camera telling his teammate Oh Sang-uk, "Don't doubt yourself." Thanks to his encouragement, Oh scored five points at the end of the match, leading Korea to defeat Italy in a score of 45-26 and to win the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

"I received a lot of support from my teammates. I wasn't sure about my condition, but they told me 'you're in good shape today,' so my self-confidence improved," Gu told reporters after the victory, Wednesday.

Archer An San / Korea Times file
Archer An San / Korea Times file

Fans voiced their support for archer An San, who has been the target of hateful comments from online trolls about the way she looks. When haters from online groups, known for leaving anti-feminist and misogynistic comments, attacked her short hair and accused her of using misandric phrases, An posted a message on her Instagram account, saying, "I'm going to stick to what I like. I'm sorry but I won't be able to check DMs (direct messages)."

Another archer, Kim Je-deok, is also known for his strong mindset. Kim's nickname is "Legolas Je-deok," inspired by the iconic character from "The Lord of the Rings" who has great archery skills, a strong mindset and a kind heart.

Football player Lee Dong-gyeong celebrates the Korean team's 4-0 victory over Romania in their Group B match in the Tokyo Olympic men's football tournament at Ibaraki Kashima Stadium in Kashima, Japan. Yonhap
Football player Lee Dong-gyeong celebrates the Korean team's 4-0 victory over Romania in their Group B match in the Tokyo Olympic men's football tournament at Ibaraki Kashima Stadium in Kashima, Japan. Yonhap

Football player Lee Dong-gyeong revealed that he had suffered mental distress after facing heavy criticism for rejecting a handshake from the New Zealand player Chris Wood.

"I realized the gravity of my action and how it could affect the image of my home country. I prepared for my next match thinking that I would be able to win back fans' support if I were to show them a good performance in the stadium," he said after the match with Romania, Sunday.

After losing to New Zealand by a score of 0-1, Team Korea beat Romania by a score of 4-0 and Honduras by 6-0, advancing to the quarterfinals.




Kwak Yeon-soo yeons.kwak@koreatimes.co.kr


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