The big news of the week is the departure of Naomi Osaka from the French Open at Roland Garros. Before the tournament the 23-year-old said she wouldn’t take part in any post-match press conferences to protect her mental health. She played the first round, missed the obligatory appointment with the press, was fined, threatened with increasing punishment and possible expulsion, and walked out of the tournament.
Reaction at first was fairly hostile: that’s the deal and by the way how fragile do you have to be to be a multi-millionaire and unable to answer some questions after the match.
But once the four-time grand slam champion talked about her 18 month-battle with depression, sympathy quickly shifted and support poured in from around the sports world.
It may be that Osaka has crossed a Rubicon in press player interaction, especially as players can deliver their thoughts directly to the world on social media.
Press conferences are largely boring affairs where you and I can more or less write the question and answers: I am taking it one game at a time, I am not thinking about winning, I just want to play the best I can, and so on.
Press conferences, particularly for women, and especially in tennis, have long been less about the tennis and more about provoking a reaction as the questions turn to a player’s sex life, their body, their outfits and so on. The questions became personal and hostile as journalists were allowed to throw appalling personal and inappropriate questions at vulnerable athletes.
It hit a low point at Wimbledon in 2013, when BBC presenter John Inverdale made the comment that Marion Bartoli, who went on to win the title, might have had to work harder than someone like Maria Sharapova because she isn’t tall, blonde and good looking. Yet no one would ever think of asking Wayne Rooney if he had to work harder than David Beckham because he isn’t that good looking.
When they are winning, players love talking with the press. When they lose, not so much. And no one enjoys having their shortcomings picked apart in the most vulnerable moments when they are still processing the defeat. It doesn’t happen in any other field. No one is watching me craft this piece then criticise every poor turn of phrase the moment it is finished. No one is hauled over the coals in public after a poor business meeting.
As an athlete, I used to love talking with the press. It got me in trouble though. Talking live on breakfast television after winning silver at the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand in 1990, I said it felt ‘orgasmic’. I had to apologise to BBC sport and was banned from live interviews for 18 months. We don’t want some old lady choking on her cornflakes, was how they put it.
It was different when I came towards the end of my career. In 1996, I narrowly missed making the Olympic team and the interviewer said, “And now we turn to James Parrack, who has failed in his bid to make the Olympic team to Atlanta this summer.” I said, “That is a harsh way of saying it. It would have been kinder to say who narrowly missed, or who came up short, rather than failed.” But I forgave them.
Birmingham will host the Commonwealth Games next year and they are promoting the event to recruit volunteers. Volunteers are essential for the success of major events.
I clearly remember the volunteers in New Zealand, who were always smiling, always friendly, endlessly supportive, thrilled when we brought back the medals to show them, and unfailingly sympathetic to those who didn’t. They made us feel as though they genuinely cared about us and would do anything to support us.
Back to 1996 and I was a volunteer myself. Living in Leeds, I worked as a volunteer at Elland road, which was where the Spanish team has all their group games. It was Euro 96, an amazing time to be a football fan in England. But my heart just wasn’t in it. My swimming career was over, ending in failure remember, and I just didn’t have the enthusiasm.
But if you are free next summer, want to be part of a great British sporting spectacular, and want to create memories and friendships that will last for years, and haven’t just ended a long swimming career, sign up and volunteer your time. You’ll love it.