Unrevealed wounds: the mental health of Olympic athletes

by Ridhima Vakkalagadda (’24) | October 11, 2021

Art by Matthew Tran (’23)

Name the most common athletic injury. Ankle sprains? ACL tears? Most of your guesses are probably wrong. The sad truth is that one in three athletes suffers from mental health issues. For the past few months, mental health has been a prominent topic of discussion within the sports community. Naomi Osaka’s famous withdrawal from the French Open sparked new conversations about how athletes are being affected not just physically, but mentally as well. Several famous athletes, including Simone Biles and Michael Phelps, have started to speak out about the pressures they face while they compete. These speeches all led to a drastic change in one of the biggest sporting events in the world: The Olympics.

As the Olympics rolled around in July, the world saw many athletes step down from their events for their mental and physical well-being. Simone Biles’ legendary decision to withdraw from her team event showed millions how vulnerable athletes — even and especially world-renowned ones — were. The gymnast chose to put her health before the title, an incredible decision to make at a competition like the Olympics. However, these issues have been around for years. In an article published by Vogue, Michael Phelps admitted to feeling depressed and suicidal after his fourth Olympics competition. He claimed that people expected him to compartmentalize his issues as an athlete and become a person without any weaknesses. But as society changed and adapted to a global pandemic, sports ideals shifted too. 

During the Tokyo Olympics, several of these issues had been addressed, and new protocols were added to help the athletes. Tokyo will mark the first time the IOC has guidelines for athletes and their coaches to educate, screen for, and manage mental health issues; the work of independent experts convened on the subject for the first time before these games. Additionally, a mental health hotline, open twenty-four hours a day with more than seventy languages in clinical support, was implemented to help all athletes, including ones who didn’t have their own mental health team. This was a historic moment in Olympic history, considering that mental problems were treated apathetically as Olympic teams expected athletes to withstand the pain and move on. 

Mental health holds potential harm for gradual physical degradation. Athletes hold it in, cope, and try to move past it. But for those on the big stage, if any misstep or any mental lapse were to be noticed, we see their mental health affect them physically. It’s time we follow the footsteps of athletes, making brave steps to destigmatize mental health and understand the extent of this illness. We put importance on things like ACL tears, and ankle sprains; maybe it’s time to look at mental health in a different light.

Categories: Sports

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