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Tokyo Olympics: Naomi Osaka, Japan’s tennis star, faces criticism after early exit from event

Some had questioned if tennis player Naomi Osaka is “Japanese enough” and why was she given the honour of lighting the cauldron during the opening ceremony. The criticism got sharper after she crashed out in the third round

July 28, 2021 / 12:53 PM IST
Naomi Osaka reacts after losing a point to Marketa Vondrousova, of the Czech Republic, during the third round of the women's singles tennis competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on July 27, 2021 (Image: AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Naomi Osaka reacts after losing a point to Marketa Vondrousova, of the Czech Republic, during the third round of the women's singles tennis competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on July 27, 2021 (Image: AP Photo/Seth Wenig)


Naomi Osaka, currently ranked World No. 2 by the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), crashed out of the Tokyo Olympics on July 27.

Osaka’s 6-1, 6-4 loss against Czech M Vondrousova in the third round also ended Japan’s hopes for a possible gold in the Women’s Singles Tennis event. The 23-year-old was one of Japan’s biggest medal hopefuls. She has been the No. 1 in the WTA rankings and is also the first Asian player to hold the top ranking in singles.

“I’m disappointed in every loss, but I feel like this one sucks more than the others,” the four-time Grand Slam champion said.

'A bit much'

The highest-paid female athlete in the world hinted that the expectations the masses had from her were perhaps too much to handle.

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“I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this," Osaka said. “I think it’s, maybe because I haven’t played in the Olympics before and for the first year [it] was a bit much.”

“It’s tough for her also playing in Japan and in the Olympics,” her opponent Vondrousova, who is ranked 42nd, said. “It’s so much pressure, I cannot imagine.”

“I’ve taken long breaks before and I’ve managed to do well," said Osaka, who initially did not comment after her loss, then came back out and met with a small group of reporters. “I’m not saying that I did bad right now, but I do know that my expectations were a lot higher.”

“I feel like my attitude wasn’t that great because I don’t really know how to cope with that pressure, so that’s the best that I could have done in this situation.”

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Japanese descent

Osaka was born in Japan, but was raised in the United States. Her mother is from Hokkaido, Japan and her father is from Haiti. Naomi and her sister Mari retained their mother's family name for practical reasons when the family lived in Japan.

She rose rapidly through the ranks of the tennis world – winning a WTA tour match at the age of 16. She had made it to the WTA top 50 by 2016 and was also named the ‘Newcomer of the Year’.

Between 2018 and 2020, Osaka progressed further. She won four Grand Slams during this period and also clinched the top spot on the WTA singles rankings.

Osaka had talked earlier this week about how “happy” she was to be playing again. That came after she announced in May going into the French Open that she wouldn’t speak to reporters at that tournament, saying those interactions create doubts for her.

Then, after her first-round victory in Paris, she skipped the mandatory news conference. Osaka was fined $15,000 and — surprisingly — publicly reprimanded by those in charge of Grand Slam tournaments, who said she could be suspended if she kept avoiding the media.

The next day, Osaka withdrew from Roland Garros entirely to take a mental health break, revealing she has dealt with depression and anxiety. She sat out Wimbledon too. So the Tokyo Games marked her return to competition.

Lighting the cauldron

In the history of the Olympic Games – both Summer as well as Winter – only the most accomplished sportspersons from the host nation are given the honour of lighting the cauldron (in most cases) during the opening ceremony. It’s supposed to be the host’s way of honouring the sportsperson’s contributions.

The organisers of the Tokyo Games gave this honour to Osaka – the final torchbearer – when the event started on July 23. This effectively made her the poster girl for the Games. Osaka herself had said after lighting the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony that it was “undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honour I will ever have in my life.”

But observers pointed out that letting Osaka to light the cauldron was symbolic at a time when the Olympic movement has come under public scrutiny for its rules restricting athletes’ political expression at the event.

Washington Wizards basketball star Rui Hachimura, who is of Japanese and Beninese descent, was one of the flag bearers for the Japanese team during the opening ceremony.

While she was mostly raised in the United States, Osaka represents Japan in tennis tournaments. She reportedly opted for the Japanese passport over her American passport in 2019 as Japan doesn’t allow dual citizenship for those above the age of 22.

She has also been a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as an advocate of mental health.

But some also questioned if Osaka is “Japanese enough?” and claimed that she was a mere “blow-in” as she flew from Florida, US to participate in the Games. Critics juxtaposed Osaka lighting the cauldron with athlete Yoshinari Sakai, who lit the flame in the 1964 edition in Tokyo. Sakai was a Hiroshima survivor and was seen as a symbol of “growing up” in Japan after World War II.

“I still can’t understand why she was the final torchbearer,” a commenter wrote on a Yahoo News story about her loss, as reported by The New York Times. “Although she says she is Japanese, she cannot speak Japanese very much.”

Across social media, many posted similar comments harshly criticising Osaka.

Despite her loss, Tokyo residents reacted to the Japanese idol kindly. Takashi Suzuki, a 75-year-old retiree, told The Associated Press that Osaka “fulfilled her mission, selected as the final torch bearer for the torch relay. I think that was really wonderful.”

Yuya Okugawa, 24-year old Chiba resident, said: “Right now she's the center of attention in many ways, but I hope she fulfills what she wishes, just as she is. I'm rooting for her, that's all.”

Yet, there was some disappointment in Japan. AP noted that the stock of Japanese tennis racket maker Yonex, one of her major corporate sponsors, plunged on July 27, just as she lost to Vondrousova. The stock recouped some of the losses but ended down 1.8%.

Some Japanese also said it broke their hearts to imagine how much Osaka had wanted to win the gold for her country.

“She has her principles about her pride for Japan, and playing for Japan, while also being proud of her diverse roots in having a Haitian father and living in the US,” AP quoted lawyer Atusko Nishiyama as saying. Nishiyama was already starting to worry Osaka might get attacked for her loss.

(With inputs from The Associated Press)
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first published: Jul 28, 2021 12:53 pm
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