The changing face of the Olympic Games

The ‘face of the Games’ has been an Olympic staple for generations. At every edition, the host nation adopts a favoured athlete almost above all others as the best hope for success, the truest representation of the event’s spirit, or both.

Sometimes these heroes emerge over the course of the Olympic fortnight but, either way, their identity can say a lot about what defines those two weeks. Looking back over the past 25 years, many of these athletes have different stories to tell.

Domestic Spotlight

In Atlanta in 1996, an Olympics dominated by displays of American excellence, US sprinter Michael Johnson wowed fans with a historic double gold in the 200m and 400m while the nation’s gymnasts won hearts with their grace and bravery. At Sydney 2000, a confident Games was topped off by 400m victory for the peerless Cathy Freeman, who became the first Australian Indigenous person to win Olympic gold at a time when her homeland was trying to find the strength for conversations about its past and bring together the communities of its present.

Brands like British Airways flocked around Jessica Ennis before London 2012 and the heptathlete delivered in competition and around the event. Her Olympic title was the peak of a delirious run of success for Team GB and she presented a welcoming face for a host eager to show off the best side of itself. As the British capital rediscovered some joy through the Games, she presented an image of diversity, commitment and humility. Four years later in Rio, football superstar Neymar gave Brazil a gold medal it had coveted for decades.

The tale does not always end well for these figures. Beijing 2008 was the moment China announced itself on the world stage. The dominant 110m hurdler Liu Xiang, whom Nike had displayed on giant billboards across the city, was supposed to be its standard bearer – but he pulled tearfully out of his heat with an injury. Four years earlier in Athens, where Liu had become the first Chinese man to win Olympic athletics gold, poster boy Kostas Kenteris failed to defend his 200m title in more bizarre circumstances. He and his training partner Ekaterina Thanou withdrew after failing to attend a drug test. They claimed to have been injured in a motorcycle crash while speeding back to the Athletes’ Village to take it but that only led to suspicions that the accident had been staged.

Osaka and a different kind of statement

The whole concept of a face of the Games, then, speaks to a combination of changing athlete profiles, brand interests and fan expectations. It can place significant pressure on the athletes involved but it also taps into the well of humanity that sets the Olympics apart from other sports events.

It is only fitting that for Tokyo 2020, a Games happening in altered times for so much of the world, as well as for Olympians, that role has taken on a different significance. The anointed figurehead of this pandemic-delayed event was Naomi Osaka, the favourite for the women’s tennis gold who lit the flame at an understated opening ceremony. Osaka evokes a different time for Japan; she is mixed-race, bold, and commercially savvy, and also a ground-breaking champion who is the first Asian player ever to top the WTA world rankings.

Yet Osaka has made a very different kind of statement in 2021. Earlier this year, she withdrew from the French Open after refusing to participate in mandatory press conferences. She then revealed that she had been struggling with her mental health for some time and needed to take a break from the sport. The power of that admission was apparent everywhere, with the 23-year-old sparking a discussion not only about the importance of self-care but the demands that sponsors, broadcasters and rights holders place on elite sportspeople. The urgency of those conversations has been heightened not just by the difficult realities of Covid-19 but also an age of ever-expanding, often more invasive media that asks individuals give more of themselves – sometimes willingly, sometimes in more insidious ways.

The new role of Mental Health

Osaka made a shock early exit from the women’s singles in Tokyo but perhaps the more remarkable thing was that she passed on that baton of understanding on the same day. Simone Biles, one of the most gifted and garlanded gymnasts of all time, stunned everyone with her withdrawal from the women’s team and individual all-around events. The 24-year-old American confirmed that she had done so in order to put her mental wellbeing first. She stayed on to offer visible support to teammates and rivals. It was a remarkable example which has help to renew a global reckoning on mental health after months of mass isolation, disconnection and trauma.

Biles and several of her American teammates have endured terrible hardships in their development as athletes, as survivors of the era in which Larry Nassar used his position as a USA Gymnastics doctor to sexually abuse hundreds of young women and girls. She explained that the anxiety she has been suffering in recent months had led to what gymnasts call ‘the twisties’ – a loss of unconscious fine coordination that leaves athletes feeling out of control of complex moves, with sometimes dangerous results.

Nonetheless, it was the honesty and openness with which Biles addressed her problems that has left many other athletes, not to mention fans, feeling as though they can be more upfront with their own concerns. A number of other Olympians – Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky among them – stepped forward to talk frankly about the pressures and frailties they have dealt with. The public response was enough to prompt Biles to write on Twitter: ‘the outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before’.

Amid all the emotion of the moment has come an important moment for brands and for the entire industry. Determined effort can deliver inspiration and triumph can yield euphoria and release. But what makes Olympians so remarkable is that they are people, too. The dialogue that has been opened can be as enriching as any number of golden Olympic memories.