Mental health is on full display at the Winter Olympics

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.

“I think what Simone did at the last Olympics was extraordinarily inspirational and really just allowed all athletes to feel like, ‘Hey, we are important as people, not just as athletes,'” figure skater Nathan Chen said in October.

“And I think that it almost set the precedent, like… I didn’t 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 as 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.

“I feel like it was a game changer,” Gasser told the New York Times. “Simone Biles’s message was that we’re not just athletes — that we are also humans and not robots.”
Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, one of the greatest skiers in the world, has also seen troubles at the Olympics, having not met expectations coming into the games. Though Shiffrin has not specifically addressed her mental health during these Olympics, observers have made comparisons to Biles’ performance last year in Tokyo.
“It’s wonderful to train and compete alongside all of these courageous and incredible women, who have overcome so much in their life, just to get here,” Shiffrin wrote on Twitter. “But being here can really hurt too.”
On Saturday, after finishing the first women’s downhill training run, Shiffrin said she hasn’t made up her mind if she’ll race in the event Tuesday. 

“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.

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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.

For many people, Covid-19 has been a hard time — they have lost loved ones, jobs or gotten sick themselves. On top of that, there’s the general exhaustion of living through a pandemic, and many Americans have reported feeling burnt out and stressed as a result. Even Buning is exhausted, she said, and she hasn’t gotten sick and has been able to work through the pandemic.

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.

Then there’s the threat of actually contracting the virus, which for these athletes could mean missing the moment for which they spent years training. Such was the case for 21-year-old Vincent Zhou, who was forced to miss a figure skating competition after a positive test.
“I have taken all the precautions I can, I’ve isolated myself so much that the loneliness I’ve felt in the last month or two has been crushing at times,” he said, in an emotional 5-minute video posted to Instagram. “The enormity of the situation, the pain of it all is pretty insane… but I do recognize that this absolutely does not define me as an athlete, as a person.”

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.

Nick Goepper of the United States competes during the Freestyle Skiing Men's Ski Slopestyle Final at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
“That summer of 2014, I really experienced this emotional distress. And really just started to slide emotionally,” Goepper said in a 2018 interview, ahead of the Pyeongchang Games. “There came a point where I was drinking every day, and I was constantly thinking about ways to end my own life.”

Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Venus Williams have also been outspoken about the pressure of being a high level athlete in the past.

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Just last year, at the Tokyo Olympics, Osaka finished the games without a medal — an unexpected result for the four-time Grand Slam champion.

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

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.”

Naomi Osaka of Team Japan leaves the court after losing her Women's Singles Third Round match against Marketa Vondrousova of Team Czech Republic at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

“Men have always been told you don’t 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’t 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 don’t care what you think, here’s what I’m experiencing,'” Buning said.

In 2020, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee hired a director of mental health services. The committee also keeps a registry, one which Buning is on, of approved mental health and performance providers. On some level at least, athlete mental health is being taken seriously.

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.

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