The first week of the Tokyo Olympics has already produced some incredible athletic performances — Maggie Mac Neil won a gold medal for Canada in the 100-metre butterfly and Canadian women have made the medal podium for the first time in judo — at a competition that has presented unprecedented challenges for all Olympians.
Much has been made about the lack of spectators at these pandemic Olympics, as well as the dangers of putting thousands of athletes together in close proximity while Tokyo is under a state of emergency because of COVID-19 transmission concerns. But there have been other challenges facing the athletes that may not be apparent.
As someone who competed at the 1984 Summer Games, I understand the preparation that’s needed to make it to the Olympics — and the pressure to perform once you get there. But what makes these Olympics more remarkable is the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on athletes over the last 18 months — not just on their physical training, but their mental well-being as well.
Anxiety and uncertainty
The sense of uncertainty and the unforeseeable future because of the pandemic has contributed to significant psychological distress in athletes. Elite athletes reported uncertainty about their future, decreased income, modified university teaching procedures, unavailable facilities and cancelled competition as the leading psychological stressors.
Clarisse Agbegnenou of France, a silver medallist in judo at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, told Eurosport: “The uncertainty about when we will be able to train and compete is very difficult to handle….I like to schedule things in advance. Being in the fog really turned me down.” In the same article, sport psychologist Makis Chamalidis said the combination of social isolation and anxiety led to feelings of withdrawal and depression in athletes.
A report by FIFPro, the organization that represents 65,000 professional footballers, found that anxiety and depressive symptoms in footballers had doubled since the beginning of the pandemic in December 2020. The leading contributing factor was worry over one’s future in football.
Other factors, like being housebound with minimal training equipment, having no time frame for returning to their sport and social isolation, resulted in many athletes expressing their anxiety and stress online and in interviews.
The increased emotional distress has been correlated with the lack of communication and support from coaches, fans, media and others. In fact, during the pandemic, sports psychologists reported increased demands for online counselling, in addition to increased diagnoses of psychological disorders among athletes.
Time is crucial to athletes’ careers
The postponement or cancellation of seasons and qualifying events resulted in “significant grief, stress, anxiety, and sadness” in athletes.
Sport’Aide, a non-profit organization aiming to eliminate violence and abuse in sports that affect young athletes, notes that time is crucial to athletes’ careers. The majority only compete in one Olympic Games and it’s highly unlikely for athletes to compete past the age of 40. The postponement of the Olympic Games can have dire consequences for athletes given the limited longevity of an athlete’s career.
Sport’Aide found) that the sudden free time, isolation and increased levels of inactivity, in addition to the feelings of disappointment and uncertainty regarding the postponement of the Games, caused anxiety, psychological distress and depressive symptoms in athletes.
The athletes attributed the lack of physical activity during quarantine as the main reason for the decline in mental well-being. Furthermore, since Olympic athletes spend the majority of the time training, the decrease in physical activity may have led to a deficit in dopamine and endorphins, resulting in diminished feelings of pleasure and happiness.
Each athlete responded to the pandemic differently, determined mostly by each individual’s resilience and coping methods.
Initially, it was found that mental-health professionals working with athletes encouraged them to seek support from family and friends. Doing so improved things such as healthy living, eating, sleeping and reflective thinking.
After the official postponement of the Olympic Games, as athletes felt that all their hard work and planning became uncertain, recommendations changed to encourage athletes to work on strengthening their existing weaknesses.
Interventions such as mindfulness, goal-setting and reframing were encouraged through video and teleconsulting means. However, not all athletes could make use of these suggestions because some didn’t have the necessary support. As a result, some athletes became inactive and directionless and suffered from substantial psychological stress.
One study found that social media can promote wellness by spreading positive messages, encouraging healthy behaviours at home and encouraging athletes to connect with family, friends and coaches virtually. But there are also downsides. In particular, there has been a lot of negative news coverage of the pandemic, resulting in negative emotions, poor sleep and mental distress.
Finances and funding
Olympic athletes train non-stop for four years before competing in the Olympic Games. Usually, athletes split up their funding over those four years, but the postponement of the Tokyo Games put many athletes in a difficult financial situation, resulting in many of them being short one year of funding.
It’s a common misconception that Olympic athletes are financially well off. The truth is that most Olympians do not have sufficient financial support and find themselves working side jobs.
So as we all continue to watch and cheer for those competing in Tokyo, keep in mind what these athletes have had to endure over the last 18 months just to make it to these unique Olympic Games.