Opinion I Athletes aren’t products, they’re human
The mental health of athletes is an issue that isn’t talked about enough
Kokichi Tsuburaya can’t run and it kills him. Overtaken near the finish of the marathon at the 1964 Olympics, the Japanese marathoner comes third. He vows to do better at the 1968 Games but his engagement falls apart and so does his body, and he takes his own life. Perhaps running had come to mean everything in his life. Him, the road and nothing else.
Next to his body is a note, which is translated in Roy Tomizawa’s exceptional blog called The Olympians. In part it reads: “My dear Father and my dear Mother, your Kokichi is too tired to run anymore. Please forgive him."
Athletes and suicides are sadly not unusual and the reasons are varied. Sometimes injury plays a role, for when the body fails, self-worth leaks away and purpose erodes. As if an entire existence is draining away. We play a role in this, for athletes become conditioned to see themselves as nothing else but athletes. As if they have no other identity, as if the place they finish in a race, or the time they record, is how they will be forever seen. It makes for a life absent of balance.
I spent a sobering last week talking to Abhinav Bindra about mental health and watching a remarkable and disturbing documentary. The Weight Of Gold, shown by HBO and narrated by Olympian Michael Phelps, explores the mental health issues which athletes confront. Behind the glitzy veneer of sport has long rested a darkness. When the greatest Olympian thinks “why don’t I just end it all?", we should all pause. Beyond the glee of money, travel, medals lies an often unhealthy world where the toll is quiet and insistent.
Bindra knows something about depression because he has been there, to that point after great victory where life seems strangely empty once the applause has faded. Dream done, now what? What will you do? No, wait, what can you do? All athletes know is the grind.
We are all complicit in building a world where athletes invest everything in hitting a ball or firing a shot. They often don’t even finish school, never learn a second skill and have no fallback plan. They put hobbies aside, don’t always build strong friendships outside sport and are hostage to numbers. This is who they are and how they are judged, not a person but a ranking. Results supersede humanity.
Young people are lured to sport, says Bindra, but are rarely told the harder truths. That only a few win; that it won’t last; that you will be cast aside; that winning doesn’t always mean long-lasting happiness; that when you are done you are often ready for nothing else. As Phelps put it in a later interview, “we’re just products", and products can be replaced.
We look at athletes as superstars, wannabes, journeymen, failures, triers, but not always as human. Frailty is frowned on. We see them glisten with vitality, all carved muscle and glow of confidence, but can’t tell the anguish within. Athletes train themselves to mask weakness, lock away vulnerability and keep—as Phelps says—“pain out of sight". And so the insecure and anxious suffer in a dangerous silence.
The Weight Of Gold is riveting, scary, sad, thoughtful. When they tell you about the Olympics and how amazing it is, says figure skater Gracie Gold, they “leave out all of the side effects". The self-image issues and bulimia. The depression and panic attacks. The loneliness and irrelevance. And there are not a lot of people to help you through it all.
Athletes talk about “emptiness" and being “overwhelmed". Lolo Jones, who was leading the 100m hurdles at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, clipped the second-last hurdle and came seventh, revealed that there were days when she was driving that she hoped a truck would hit her. Stories, wrenching and revealing, come one after the other. Skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender, her voice breaking, recounts how she wanted to go home and see her dying father when she was on the road for competitions. She was not allowed to. Medals came first.
We don’t talk enough about mental health in sport and we should. We think athletes should “suck it up" and tend to look away. We hear about cricketers going off the rails and we cluck sympathetically and move on. It’s time, surely, for more extended conversations, for it’s the least we owe athletes from whom we take so much.
Bindra is on the International Olympic Committee working group on mental health, which is tasked with creating resources for athletes, raising awareness and starting a campaign to erase stigma. To succeed here would be among sport’s finest triumphs, for with a postponed Tokyo Games there is more suffering out there than we know.
Some athletes bound for Tokyo might be wondering, will form return, will funding continue, will I have to ask my parents for another loan? Am I running out of time, will swimming pools open, have I sacrificed for nothing? Not every problem can be solved with 200 more push-ups and a 10km run.
We need to build an environment where athletes can ask for help. Can call a number and find someone to talk to. Someone who’s listening and not judging.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.