Sports

Asher-Smith and Johnson-Thompson next to be tested at these Olympic ‘Mind’ Games

More than ever these are the Mind Games of the XXXII Olympiad.

From Naomi Osaka to Simone Biles, Tokyo is where the stars of sport have come to deliver the message that it’s okay not to be okay.

Organisers have even changed the Olympic motto ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ recognising it lacks sufficient empathy in these challenging times.

But tagging ‘Together’ to the end of a slogan did not insulate Osaka from the anxieties that led to her mental health time-out as she lost heavily here.

Nor did it prevent Biles, the single greatest talent at this gathering of superhumans, from walking out mid-competition saying she had “freaked out in a high stress situation” and was in the wrong headspace to continue.

Into this arena tomorrow steps Dina Asher-Smith, followed soon after by team mate and fellow world champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson.

Simone Biles has withdrawn from Games over mental health concerns

Naomi Osaka, who took a mental health time-out prior to Tokyo, crashed to an early defeat
Naomi Osaka, who took a mental health time-out prior to Tokyo, crashed to an early defeat

With the track and field hopes of a nation resting so heavily on their shoulders it is timely to wonder whether the scrutiny could be all too much.

Asher-Smith begins her three-medal quest in the women’s 100 metres oozing belief and with British head coach Christian Malcolm saying she has “built an aura” of being able to win.

“It reminds me a little bit of Linford Christie back in the day,” he said. “Linford didn’t always run the fastest times, but he would always be competitive and able to beat the top guys when it mattered.”

Katarina Johnson-Thompson crowned world champion in Doha in 2019
Katarina Johnson-Thompson crowned world champion in Doha in 2019

The difference now from Christie’s era is social media and 24/7 rolling news. He faced scrutiny, of course he did, but 2021 is different level. All consuming. Too often toxic.

For an athlete like Johnson-Thompson, who is sensitive as well prodigiously talented, it can be a daunting environment.

She banished her demons to reach the summit in 2019 and now, after a serious achilles injury at the turn of the year, she is being challenged all over again.

2000 Olympic champion Denise Lewis
2000 Olympic champion Denise Lewis

Heptathlon great Denise Lewis acknowledges that it will require every ounce of the fighting spirit that made her top Kat in Doha.

Once again the key phrase is ‘mental toughness’ when Lewis, Olympic champion in 2000, sizes up the task facing her fellow multi-eventer.

“Because in heptathlon you never mentally switch off,” she explained. “The real skill is being able to deal with that engagement all day and not let it consume you.

“It’s a balancing act of the mental; of picking yourself up when you’re not doing particularly well or as well as you’d like, and maintaining even temperament throughout the competition.

“You have to keep that focus whether Day One has been brilliant or horrendous. You’ve got to be even in your approach to the two days. And not give up.”

Biles: The single greatest talent at this gathering of superhumans
Biles: The single greatest talent at this gathering of superhumans

There is no doubting Asher-Smith and Johnson-Thompson have the talent to take them where they want to go.

What the coming week will reveal is whether they possess the temperament to handle the mind game in this most demanding of times.




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