Naomi Osaka pulls out of Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo due to illness on Thursday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
As the news of Osaka’s withdrawal circulated and as media outlets all over the world began to report on it, the Japanese media appeared to have a collective sigh of relief.
The news was widely discussed in Japan — some papers even ran editorials on why Osaka didn’t deserve to be there — and the mood seemed to be one of relief.
It also, perhaps predictably, seemed to reflect a deeper frustration at the way things are done around the world right now. The Olympics is a time when the world sets aside some of its more egregious forms of inequality where athletes are concerned. (Some readers may remember when Serena Williams and Venus Williams were robbed of their dreams of a full Olympic career because of a simple rule about how they were competing for medals.)
But the Olympics is also a time when the world’s elite athletes need to prove they can compete on an unprecedented level, a level which, while perhaps somewhat different than in the past, is still incredibly high. In such a time, the pressure is great and the stakes are high to keep the athletes on a level playing field.
Japan’s Olympics are supposed to be different, that is, they’re supposed to highlight the sport of tennis and the ability of the athletes to compete as one. Osaka, Japan’s tennis star, wanted the Olympics to be one of those big news events that makes headlines in the world, and her withdrawal might be the result of that. But as the news filtered out through the Japanese media, the reaction was to be much more cautious in terms of how things will be discussed in the future from now on. (I’ve seen no confirmation by the Japanese authorities what actually led to Osaka’s decision to withdraw, and I’m not sure we can really know what’s going on from a media standpoint.)
It’s no accident that a country as big and as influential as Japan gets to play host to the Olympics for the first time in 102 years, and that there is some backlash to this move. The Olympics are supposed to be about sports and the athletes, and while tennis is considered a sport with great potential, many people in Japan don’t see it as a sport worthy of Olympic recognition.
What it comes down to