Snowboarder Jamie Anderson – a two-time Olympic gold medalist – fell multiple times during the women’s slopestyle competition, finishing in ninth place. This week, she opened up about the incident, saying the cause was not physical but mental.
Winter athletes took notice.
“And I think that it almost set the precedent, like … I did not even realize that was an option, what she decided to do. And I was like, ‘Wow, that actually makes me feel a lot better about who I am an athlete, too. ‘ Knowing that, you know, when it comes down to it, I can choose my destiny. ‘”
Other athletes, like snowboarder Anna Gasser, have echoed those sentiments upon arriving in Beijing.
“Today gives me a bit more positivity,” the three-time Olympic medalist said. “I would love to race this downhill, so that’s the plan. But we are going to have to see how things go as the days progress because there are sections of this track that some of the more speed specialist skiers are going to excel at and improve already tomorrow. And I am not sure exactly where, how I can improve. “
The ongoing pandemic and isolation are adding to the stress
As the Beijing Olympics continue, the pressure cannot be overstated. The stressors are everywhere – the weight of representing an entire country, of getting only a single chance every four years to compete at this level, of living up to gold medal expectations. And that’s just during a normal Olympics run.
With Covid-19, it’s even worse, said Megan Buning, a teaching specialist at Florida State University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Athletic Coaching.
There are no fans cheering you on, and no family and friends to lean on. And for some athletes, there’s the added geopolitical pressure of competing in China, a hotbed of political issues, she said.
So now imagine you’re an Olympic athlete. In the same way that seasonal athletes practice and train differently in the pre-season, the actual season, post-season and off season, Olympic athletes do the same – the difference is the timeline. Where a seasonal athlete may try to peak at the post-season, these athletes train over four years and time their peak for the Olympics, Buning said.
Of course, these athletes are trained to be flexible and adapt to uncertainty. But they’re humans too, which means many have also felt the strain of the pandemic and its ensuing exhaustion and burn out – just like the rest of us.
“When you have things like added stress of Covid, at some point, you get fatigued,” Buning said.
Conversations around mental health predate the past two Olympics
Mental health struggles also existed before Covid-19. Nick Goepper, a freestyle skier who won a bronze in 2014 at the Sochi Olympics, opened up four years later about his struggles after that performance.
Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Venus Williams have also been outspoken about the pressure of being a high level athlete in the past.
Just last year, at the Tokyo Olympics, Osaka finished the games without a medal – an unexpected result for the four-time Grand Slam champion.
Some say these athletes simply cracked under pressure, as was said of Biles at Tokyo, Buning noted. There’s an idea among some that athletes should grin and bear whatever pain, physical or mental, exhibited by that memorable line from “A League of Their Own”: “There’s no crying in baseball.”
“Men have always been told you do not show emotion, you just push through it. But women have been told that as well. And we are just not wired that way. No one is,” Buning said.
Why the latest conversations around athletes’ mental health matter
The fact that many people, many women, have come forward and been honest about the pressure they’re under, is huge.
“I feel like women think they can not say things sometimes or they’re going to get a lot of backlash. And I think with the Williams sisters, and Biles, and the ones that have spoken out since, it’s taken courage to get to where they are. And they just have said, ‘I do not care what you think, here’s what I’m experiencing,’ “Buning said.
Though it’s unclear how many athletes are actually using those resources, or managing their mental health in other ways, there’s an obvious increased normalization around the issue. Talking about it, at least, is a step.