Paris (AFP) – US gymnastics superstar Simone Biles’ legacy may not be the four Olympic gold medals she won in her career, but a remarkable meltdown at the Tokyo Olympics that prompted other sporting greats to talk about their battle with mental health issues.
Biles’ bout with the twists – a condition which means gymnasts lose their ability to navigate in the air – is perhaps the most enduring image of the Games.
Since then, retired French soccer icon Thierry Henry and Irish rugby great Keith Earls have spoken candidly about their struggles.
Biles’ ordeal follows four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka of Japan, who admitted to battling depression in May last year.
Henry usually seemed a very calm and confident figure on and off the field, so his recognition came as a surprise and surprise to many.
“To cry was impossible,” Henry told L’Equipe newspaper in March.
“You are not allowed to show your weaknesses.
“It was, ‘Thierry, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry!’
“I really cried when I was alone, but I fought with myself not to cry in public.
“I’m crying now,” added the Arsenal legend.
Earls has over 90 caps for Ireland and was a key member of the Six Nations Grand Slam winning team in 2018.
He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2013 after biting the bullet and seeing a psychiatrist.
The 34-year-old’s candor in his 2021 autobiography Fight or Flight: My Life, My Choices was described as “inspiring” by his Ireland team-mate James Ryan.
“My admiration for him (Earls) grew even more, the way he was able to normalize that it doesn’t matter who you are … Mental health doesn’t discriminate,” Ryan said.
Earls says that in the wake of his revelations, other teammates have decided to see a psychiatrist.
This transparency seems to have broken the taboo where it was not considered ready for people who exercise to go and see someone to discuss their mental health.
“Twenty years ago it was the same in terms of mental preparation for events,” Greg Descamps, a sports psychology researcher at the University of Bordeaux, told AFP.
“No one said, ‘I’m seeing a mental coach.’
“We’re starting to see the same thing in terms of consultations in sports psychology clinics.
“Because we can’t expect athletes to perform if there are unresolved psychological issues.
England men’s Test cricket captain Ben Stokes is another who has opened the door to mental health issues.
The 31-year-old followed a long list of cricketers such as Marcus Trescothick, Sarah Taylor and Andrew Flintoff to struggle with their mental health when he admitted his problems last year, taking four months off the game to deal with his illness .
“I was in a really dark place and I had some difficult thoughts,” he said in May when he was promoted to captain.
“Now I realize that speaking is such a powerful thing and it has completely changed me.”
“There was suffering”
That’s not to say that in the cutthroat world of sports, the floodgates have opened wide for what some still consider a stigma.
“Sports is a world that prides itself on excellence, strength, masculinity and where any sign of weakness is forbidden,” DeCamp said.
“Those who do speak out will be considered, often wrongly, as unable to go to a national championship or the Olympics.”
DeCamp says teams are still tight-lipped if the reason for a player or athlete’s absence is due to mental health issues.
However, some sports organizations have taken steps to address the problem.
In the United States, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) introduced “six months of paid mental health leave” in February of this year.
It was welcomed by many players, including Cari Roccaro, who played a leading role in getting the NWSL to adopt such a policy after she suffered from mental health issues.
“Girls who tear ACLs still get paid even though they’ve been away from the team for months,” Rocarro said in March.
“Why treat mental trauma any differently?”
Perhaps surprisingly, success on the court or field does not protect you from the black dogs of depression.
According to Olivier Krumbholz, coach of France’s Olympic gold medal-winning handball team, mental health issues are more evident than ever and “even more so when there are good results”.
He told AFP that after the team’s moment of glory in Tokyo “there was suffering”.
© 2022 AFP