The Olympics Were a Great Reminder That the Stories Behind Athletes Are Worth Their Weight in Gold

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If there’s one word to describe the 2020 Olympic Games, it’s bittersweet. Despite the rise of the COVID-19 Delta variant, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) promised a “safe and secure” Games. What ensued was an Olympics, devoid of fans in the stands and at home, as well as with many promising Olympians, including Coco Gauff (tennis, USA) and Kara Eaker (gymnastics, USA), not in attendance. But for those athletes who did make it to the Olympic Village in Tokyo, the Games have felt like an incomparable triumph. Following a year that has stripped us of so much joy and human connection, the stories behind the athletes’ performances–whom we often categorize as having superhuman strength–remind us that at its heart, sport is utterly humanizing.

Athletics are one of our country’s most popular pastimes. According to sports psychotherapist Candice Williams, PhD, LPC, who also works with Alkeme Health, “Sporting events promote a sense of solidarity among fans, who as a result, experience an increased sense of community over their shared love for a team or athlete.” Banding behind an Olympian–be it world-record-breaking track star Sydney McLaughlin, the most-winning runner in history Allyson Felix, or veteran beach volleyball gold medalist April Ross–can make viewers feel bonded in a time that has been characterized by isolation and that has taken a unique toll on the world’s collective mental health.

However, as we learned during the Games this year, the desire for athletes to overcome all odds, and win at all costs, actually comes at a steep price to those competing. “There’s a gap between who these athletes are as people and what those of us at home actually understand about them,” says Ali Feller, race announcer, journalist, and host of the Ali on the Run Show podcast. “It’s like we just want them to perform and win gold–and that’s unrealistic and unfair in many ways.”

As Dr. Williams points out, this year, an unprecedented number of athletes–in the Olympics and beyond–have not gritted their teeth and competed through injuries and mental health struggles. Competitors like Simone Biles, who dropped out of three events, citing the twisties, and Naomi Osaka, who was fined $15K for refusing press interviews during the French Open to protect her mental health, have shown us that athletes are people first. “Athletes are normalizing that ‘It’s okay not to be okay’,” says Dr. Williams. “As a result of Naomi and Simone’s decisions to focus on their mental health, we have seen the acknowledgment of more and more Black women voicing the decision to take better care of themselves, reclaiming their time, vowing to set better boundaries, and recognizing the impact burnout has on their mental and physical health.”

On her podcast, Feller seeks to unpack who athletes are outside of sport, and she says that, in many ways, social media has been the catalyst for people to see through the brawn and into what makes an athlete tick. “Aliphine Tuliamuk came back from having a baby and decided to [run the marathon] once the pandemic hit and everything was postponed,” says Feller. “She won the Olympic marathon trials what feels like a lifetime ago. She’s been super honest [on Instagram], documenting her return to running. She has her baby there with her [in Tokyo], which she didn’t know would get to happen, and she is breastfeeding. She’s another one, who is so easy to cheer for.”

So, too, is Olympic gymnast Samuel Mikulak who, in late 2020, used his YouTube channel to share that this year’s Olympics would be his last. Referencing a recurrent wrist injury and the mental taxation of training on a four-year Olympic cycle, Mikulak said, “For so long, I felt like gymnastics really wasn’t going to be fulfilling until I’d gotten my Olympic medal. During quarantine, I had this whole revelation like: You know what? I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my entire life and I’m not doing gymnastics. So even if I don’t accomplish these goals, I’m still going to be so damn happy.” Mikulak went on to place sixth in the Tokyo parallel bars final.

Behind every athlete, there are thousands of these stories that show that perseverance, determination, and a desire to win are happening whether we’re watching or not, and we are lucky enough to get this reminder every four years. Yet, just like a track star’s splits might inspire you to rev your own engine, Dr. Williams believes that, particularly in this Games, hearing athletes’ stories will inspire us to share our own. “Embracing a life unscripted and unplanned has been the motto for a number of athletes this past year. However, it has enabled them to rebound from the hard things and realize how resilient they are amidst the challenges happening within and around them,” she says. “My hope is that viewers and non-athletes understand that we have to celebrate athletes with just as much compassion and empathy as we do praise for their athleticism.” What Dr. Williams is calling for is a new type of camaraderie–and it’s ours for the taking.

Because yes, having someone to cheer on at the world’s biggest sporting stage means a lot, but supporting competitors–who have unique stories, and love sport in all its complexities just as much as we do–means a so much more.

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