Who is the ultimate athlete?

Is Emma Raducanu the ultimate athlete? Widely unknown when she played in the US Open in 2021, she defeated her Canadian opponent in the final, 6-4, 6-3. This remarkable victory was not just unexpected – setting records including the youngest Briton to win a grand slam – but achieved this alongside academic success. That same year, she received an A* and A in maths and economics A-levels. 

Raducanu emphasised in an interview that ‘You have to think about your life after your career is over’. This comment, and her recent performances on the tennis court, underline the competing pressures on athletes and the challenges they face. Raducanu, for example, was unable to replicate her early breakaway success, pulling out of later competitions and focusing on her mental health rather than continuing to compete.

In looking for ‘the ultimate athlete’, we must also question the extent to which athletes can dedicate themselves single-mindedly to their sport and explore the importance of having a dual career while maintaining their position in their respective sport. 

A dual career can offer an outlet for an athlete to vent frustrations from the sporting arena into a different area of their life. And vice versa. It can give athletes greater mental flexibility, as well as an awareness that they have a safety barrier if things fall apart in their sport.

The balancing act may not be as easy as it appears from the outside. The media shies away from showing the reality of an athlete’s maintenance of both. I would argue it is essential that athletes have the opportunities available to talk about the challenge of the dual career, to break down the looming wall that instils the image that athletes are recognised for their victories and portrayed negatively when they start losing. In Raducanu’s case, her public image has shifted from being a rising star to a case of ‘too much, too soon’

The need to maintain this image has been linked to greater feelings of burn-out, and fatigue. For athletes, where resilience in the face of setbacks and the media is integral to maintaining a winning mentality, victories in other domains may be a key part of creating this resilience.  

Furthermore, a dual career is necessary for an athlete’s financial stability. Up to 50% of athletes go bankrupt or face financial stress in the years following retirement. An athlete’s career, depending on the sport, is unlikely to be a lifetime career, due to the intensity of elite sport and the toll it takes on their body. So, life without income from the sport and continuing a luxury lifestyle has wiped out finances for a lot of athletes… a lot of them playing NFL basketball. So, life post-sport is something that more younger athletes are considering, as Raducanu says it may be something older athletes wish they had ‘thought ahead’ about.  

Yet, if you do not come from a financially stable background, getting into a sport is largely reliant on government funding. The choice of which sport deserves more funding over another is a controversial topic. The government previously had been putting funding into ‘winning’ sports, essentially those in which the UK classically wins gold at the Olympics – cycling. However, this problematic funding scheme has changed since the 2012 Olympics. Cuts made to basketball and handball have been reverted, with new cuts being made to the ‘posh’ sports (i.e. equestrian, rowing), in favour of up-and-coming sports for Paris 2024, such as surfing and skateboarding. The focus is moving to sports which unify the nation, rather than purely focused on ‘winning sports’, thus providing more access to people from different backgrounds. 

Things are changing, and there is not just a focus on winning anymore for the athlete or the sports funding. Now, the role of sport is changing, focussing more on how it can unite the country, and how it can be accessible to anyone from any background. As for athletes, many are carrying out a juggling act. While the media is not going to show what they are juggling, their victories outside the sport are significant for creating a resilient, or, winning mentality. Take Raducanu, we could say that scoring the A* and A in the A-levels was a valuable victory for her, setting her on her winning streak in time for the US Open. The ultimate female athlete? I think so!

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