The Summer Olympics are taking place in Tokyo this month, an event that is stirring up plenty of excitement and patriotism across the world. Seeing the best athletes in the world compete against each other in one of the largest cities in East Asia makes it easy to forget that these are regular people who are not invincible. In fact, many Olympians carry something heavier than the weights they lift or the races they run: PTSD.
Trauma comes in many forms, and isn’t left behind when you encounter success. Or just because your injuries heal, as it was in my case. In a society that glorifies celebrities and social media influencers, we aren’t talking enough about the mental health issues that are being caused by our constant need for online validation. Athletes are no exception, especially when said athletes are under the stress of knowing that their successes and failures are broadcasted to millions of people. Look at the backlash against athletes who chose to protect their mental health rather than take questions about a crushing loss. Our expectations of athletes are so high that we forget they are just as human as the rest of us.
Some athletes got into their sport as a way to escape bad childhoods, abusive homes, and other traumas. In a study done by sport psychology professor Lew Hardy, most medaling Olympians were exposed to trauma as children, whether that was abuse, addiction, or even parental death. Simone Biles joined gymnastics after her grandparents rescued her from foster care when her mother got sucked into the world of drugs. This goes against everything we think we know about adverse childhood experiences. Usually, people who come from traumatic childhoods are found to be more at risk for negative health outcomes, not go on to become some of the top athletes in the world.
Simone, one of the most decorated gymnasts in Olympics history, was also one of the girls abused by former team physician Larry Nassar. Instead of evading the spotlight and hiding the horrific things that happened to her and generations of other girls under his care, she addressed the situation publicly and is still continuing to compete.
How are these athletes able to overcome adversity and trauma like this? According to many of their biographies, they site trauma being a “motivational trigger” for them, fueling their desire to win. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that trauma plays a key role in athletic success, but it is interesting to see how it has been a huge part of many Olympians’ lives.
As the reach of the internet grows larger and the stresses of the world increase, it is crucial that we have more discussions centered around mental health. We have already lost too many loved ones to the pain of mental illness and suicide. It’s a big part of why I wrote my book and why I continue to blog, and why everyone around the world needs to join the conversation.