As the Winter Olympics take over the news, we see the rise and fall of athletes in real-time ad we scrutinize their competitive performance. What we don’t see is the toll of the Olympics on the mental and physical health of these elite athletes. Olympic athletes push their minds and bodies to extremes as they prepare and recover from the Olympics and all of this comes with serious consequences on their well-being.
Olympic athletes are currently participating in Beijing Winter Olympics which spans 9 days. There are 2781 athletes currently competing in 7 winter sports, including skiing, ice hockey, figure skating, and more. At the Olympics themselves, we see numerous athletes injure themselves or have mental breakdowns during their competitions, from figure snowboarder Chloe Kim to skier Nina O’Brien. But behind the scenes, this occurs ten-fold.
Athletes are prone to a variety of physical and mental tolls on their bodies including overtraining syndrome, depression, anxiety, overuse injuries, concussion, and eating disorders. Their ability to persevere through these is admirable and inspiring to younger generations of athletes.
Overtraining syndrome is triggered by excessive levels of exercising without rest, a common occurrence in the Olympics world. As a result of this extreme bodily fatigue, muscle soreness and weight loss are physical symptoms that then decrease athletic performance. They are accompanied by inflammation of the central nervous system that can lead to depressed moods, hormonal changes, anxiety, and insomnia.
Numerous Olympic athletes have faced overtraining syndrome at various times in their lives and it often requires rest and medication to address the symptoms. Simone Manuel, a 4-time Olympic medalist, and American swimmer were very open about her diagnosis with overtraining syndrome in March 2021. As she prioritized her well-being over her sport and deal with this syndrome, she ended up not qualifying for the 2021 summer Olympics but made promises of bouncing back soon.
Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety are also experienced in higher proportions in Olympic athletes. Rates of depression and anxiety have been found to be as high as 45% for elite athletes in general. The mental and physical strains of competing, winning, or losing can all take a toll on self-esteem and stress response. Competitions come with performance anxiety while the end of an Olympics comes as a screeching halt to these athletes who have spent months preparing for something that is not over, giving them a sense of purposelessness.
The mental health strains of elite athletic competition have only been escalated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Olympic athletes are feeling the stresses of strict quarantine and testing rules, COVID-19 deaths, recent racial justice issues, and financial hardships just as much as others. Isolated training and the lack of fans to cheer them on can also serve as downers when it comes to self-esteem and support for these athletes.
Numerous athletes have discussed their struggles with depression, including the most decorated Olympian of all times, Michael Phelps. He checked into rehab in 2014 after getting a DUI and soon bounced back. Allison Schmitt, a 5-time gold medalist, and American swimmer faced post-Olympic blues specifically. This eventually led to depression, something she has been very vocal about experiencing and getting treated for.
The pressure of the postponed summer Olympics and uncertainty facing the rest of the Olympic games also contributes to pressure for greater academic performance to make up for the lost time. German relay runner Sam Parsons has openly discussed how the postponement of the Olympics caused his performance anxiety as he felt higher expectations on him due to the increased duration of time he spent training. Despite placing 10th in the Drake Relays after experiencing a panic attack during the race, he understood that he needed to get help and started treatment soon after.
When it comes to physical injuries, Olympic athlete overtraining often leads to overuse of muscles. Tendon strains, fractures, and sprains are some of the most common injuries seen in Olympic athletes. Thankfully these have shorter recovery times than other injuries, but can still put athletes out of time trials or the games themselves as they significantly affect athletic performance.
In contact sports, concussions are also a major source of injury. Martial arts, hockey, rugby, and water polo are some of the most notable contact sports in the Olympics that can lead to concussions. Though concussions don’t affect the parts of the body required to play one’s sport, they can still cause other symptoms that often render athletes incapable of playing their sport for a while. These symptoms include confusion, memory problems, dizziness, nausea, and light sensitivity.
Closely linked to mental health issues and scrutiny of physical appearance and athletic performance are eating disorders. Eating disorders are faced by 9% of this world’s population but in a study of Canadian Olympians, around 21% of them were diagnosed with eating disorders. This statistic doesn’t even include those who are suffering from eating disorders but are not open to admitting them.
Eating disorders are known to be common among figure skaters, who are weighed every week and compared to each other. Kirsten Moore Towers, a Canadian Olympic skater, recently discussed how her former coach had encouraged her to purge in order to maintain her body weight. This behavior eventually lead to an eating disorder that was only addressed when her new coach told her she had to get help if she wanted to continue the sport.
Eating disorders are a direct result of the environment created around elite athletics. Not only do athletes pressure themselves to look and perform a certain way, but many coaches also encourage unhealthy behaviors that can create a specific physical form. This accompanied by peer pressure and exposure to false sciences can increase behaviors that lead to eating disorders.
The Olympics are exciting to watch for us and enticing opportunities for athletes. At the same time, it’s important to understand the harms of competitive atmospheres, especially on athletes’ mental and physical health. The best way for us to address these issues is by acknowledging their existence and raising awareness about them. The more we and Olympic athletes speak up about mental and physical health issues, the more we can encourage the prioritization of health in sports in not only elite athletes but also youth athletes who look up to them.