The Olympics are the pinnacle of an athletic career. But after athletes step off the podium a deeper challenge awaits. Who are they when the uniforms come off?
Olympic rower Christine Roper (frontside) hugging her teammate as they celebrate their gold medal victory. (Courtesy of Christine Roper.)
Imagine yourself at the top of the Olympic podium.
The gold medal hangs around your neck, affirming you’ve conquered the world. Back home, family, friends, media and town folks blow up your phone in a chorus of praise. Life is good.
Many toil in anonymity before Olympic success catapults them into hero status. But the fame can be fleeting. The result can be a roller-coaster ride from zero-to-hero-to-zero, difficult to navigate.
For some, the result can be as catastrophic as suicide. Many flounder, never again finding the confidence that fueled their rise to athletic prominence.
For many who step onto that Olympic podium, life returns to normal six months later. Life was good. Now, you’re no longer viewed as the champ, but just another retired athlete struggling to figure out what to do next with your life.
“There’s a stereotype that you’re only depressed if you have a result that you don’t like or if you’re disappointed with your performance,” said Christine Roper, two-time Olympic rower and gold medalist. “I had a harder time after my better performance,” she said.
Is there life after athletics?
Eight months from now, the world’s greatest athletes will convene in Paris, France for the 2024 Summer Olympics. With high-profile athletes like U.S. gymnast Simone Biles going public with their struggles to maintain a positive mental outlook, mental health professionals in several national Olympic associations are gearing up to help their athletes mitigate post-Olympic depression and transition into life after athletics.
The post-Olympic period is considered a critical time for athletes’ well-being. According to sports psychologists, researchers and athletes themselves, Olympians are uniquely at risk for suicide due to a number of toxic factors: a hyper-focus on sports, lack of outside interests and lack of confidence mapping the world beyond one’s sport.
Post-Olympic depression is the emotional crash following the physical and mental peak of the Olympic Games. During this time, athletes can experience periods of confusion, loss of purpose, resentment, negative self-worth and emptiness. Although the public is aware of this condition, research shows that our scientific understanding of athletes’ post-Olympic emotional reactions has been largely neglected.
Post-Olympic depression can be triggered by results from the last performance, self-esteem, anxiety and the fear of the unknown for those retiring.
“Some athletes are like, ‘I don’t want to think about that, let me get through the Games, and then I’ll think about it’,” said Jamie Shapiro, professor of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver in the U.S. state of Colorado. “But then I think it’s too late; and that’s where maybe more or higher levels of depression are experienced when someone hasn’t put thought into what post-Games life will be like.”
A different kind of coaching
In 2020, sports psychologist Kristoffer Henriksen reported that athletes committed wholeheartedly to the Olympic pursuit are at increased risk of disappointment, identity foreclosure and high life stress.
The limited mental health support allocated to the post-Games time period contributes to depression.
Coaches and support staff are often unavailable, burnt-out and ill-prepared to support the athletes through this period of vulnerability. New research shows they, too, may suffer from post-Games depression.
This can lead to the perception that athletes are no longer entitled to draw on their more formal support systems, especially those retiring. That thought can be harmful during a time which Olympic medalist Holly Bradshaw calls a “crisis transition.”
The celebrity phase Olympians experience can also contribute to depression.
When one stops being sought after
Before the Games, athletes receive interview and marketing requests from media and sponsors, beginning the celebrity transformation. At the Games, athletes can become the celebrity of celebrities within the Olympic village, depending on their performance and previous pedigree.
This can cause an Olympian’s celebrity status to intensify, especially with the use of social media. Olympians have described this period as a time where they truly felt special, a three-week span where they were spoiled with infinite resources and services. Once the Games conclude, Olympians return with a pomp and circumstance homecoming.
Soon the excitement starts to fade, society moves onto the next trending topic and the realization that life hasn’t changed appreciably and their transient status as celebrities didn’t afford them any special treatment at home sinks in.
Many athletes are surprised how fast interest in them dwindles. Some Olympians believe they lack support from the public and their significant others once the Games conclude.
Even the most successful Olympians aren’t immune to depression.
Mental health challenges affect people at all levels.
Some of history’s greatest Olympians like Simone Biles and swimmer Michael Phelps have struggled with mental health. For athletes that have reached the pinnacle of their sport, it can be difficult finding motivation or purpose knowing that you’ve accomplished everything. Most successful Olympians tend to have a higher celebrity status, so the decline in status can feel greater over time.
In 2020, HBO released a documentary called “The Weight of Gold,” which focused on the struggles Olympians endure after the Games. Many of the athletes featured in the documentary were highly successful including Michael Phelps, speed skater Apolo Ohno and snowboarder Shaun White.
Post-success depression is not limited to sports. It happens in entertainment, academia, commerce or any situation where people go from hero to zero in a short period of time, especially when living in an attention-deficit world.
The Olympic experience is different for each athlete, so mental health professionals tailor their approach depending on the athlete.
One of the first things mental health professionals do when creating strategies to help mitigate post-Olympic depression is establish the athlete’s identity. Mental health professionals seek out what the Olympics means to them, what their goals are for the Games and most importantly, what they do outside the sport — a key piece mitigating any post-Olympic blues.
Post-Games help must start before the Games start.
Leading up to the Games, mental health professionals focus on goal setting and managing expectations. At the Games, Olympians will be as physically prepared as they’re going to be. The mental health professionals are there to help them be able to execute the way they intend to when it matters, which includes pressure and distraction management techniques.
Post-Games, the focus is on reflection. Mental health professionals will have long conversations with the athlete about how the Olympics went, what went well and what they learned and any improvements that could be made for future attempts.
Coaches play a critical role as well in the athlete’s well-being. They know the athletes the best, being in a day-to-day training environment with them, and will be able to observe any behavior changes.
“My coaches are my eyes and ears,” said Christie Gialloreto, mental performance consultant for the Canadian Olympic Rowing Team.
Shapiro said that once the athlete returns home, mental health professionals believe its important athletes have something to occupy them, whether it’s school, family or a job.
“They know that there’s something else on the other side they can look forward to and I think that really helps with the negative mood after the Games,” Shapiro said.
Building counseling into athletic training
Some National Olympic Committees globally have announced efforts to help mitigate the mental health problem.
In December 2022, the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees received an investment of CAD $2.4 million (about USD $1.8 million) toward mental health in high-performance sports.
The United States Olympic Paralympic Committee provided athletes with year-round resources such as the Mental Health Registry, WellTrackTM App and a 24/7 support for mental health emergencies. The International Olympic Committee developed a new Mental Health Action Plan in July 2023, to further focus on the well-being of athletes and promote psychologically-safe environments.
These programs might help athletes in the upcoming Games to return home to navigate their dual identities back home: The celebrity of the moment and the everyday person.
“It’s unreal, it really doesn’t matter who you are,” Gialloreto said. “In the big scheme of things, I’m nobody, but if I wear my Olympic jacket to the grocery store, people are like, ‘Oh shit.’ I’m just like, Oh, I’m just me. So, there is this celebrity special treatment.”
Three questions to consider:
- What kind of challenges do Olympic athletes face after achieving celebrity status?
- What are some ways people can combat depression?
- When you are trying to achieve something that takes a lot of effort, do you think about what happens after you accomplish your goal?
Lance Roller II is a U.S.-based researcher, data analyst and freelance journalist. He is currently a fellow in the Dalla Lana Fellowship in Journalism and Health Impact at the University of Toronto.