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The Human Cost of Olympic Dreams

The Olympics are intended to be a universal representation of good will and recognition of top athletes from all over the world. Yet, year after year, it is a few teams that dominate and then top the medal podium. The news is filled each year about the first athlete from a specific nation winning their nation's first medal ever, despite years of competing.

So, a question (or two). What does fair access mean in athletic competition? Follow-up - does the Olympics represent in any way the intention to recognize athletes from all over the world or has it become just a form of nationalistic fervor that divides the world into nations who have built vast, capitalistic sport networks, and those nations who are dedicating their full resources to caring for their people.

Consider that in the United States being able to compete in the Olympics often requires a level of familial support that limits many talented athletes who cannot relocate to be near an Olympic-level coach or who cannot afford the incredible financial cost of training at that level. When families cannot afford it, the result is what happened with USA Gymnastics – young children are taken and abused by people who control their lives.

Gabby Douglas’s mom has reported that her bankruptcy was primarily a result of her efforts to keep up with the $15,000 minimum buy-in for her child to compete. That minimum is yearly, meaning that for an athlete be at Olympic level in gymnastics requires a family that can contribute at least $150,000 plus trips to compete, uniforms, and gear over a decade. In a nation that still struggles to pay people living wages, this means that even within the United States becoming an Olympic athlete is a dream beyond the financial ability for many with the gifts, talent, and drive to be one of those top athletes.

We get excited every time a Jamaican bobsled team makes it, but in truth that is the exception. Olympic athleticism should be open to anyone who can train like Rocky Balboa running in the mountains, but in truth every top medaling nation using it to anchor their nationalistic pride, it is more like Ivan Drago’s heartless training in a science lab. Every single doping scandal should be a reason to make us reconsider the entire Olympics.

When I injured my back in a motorcycle wreck and then was diagnosed with scoliosis, I gave up a childhood love for the competive-ness of track, basketball, and softball. It was hard, but those things were just part of my life, so I found new things to love. Which is the problem – when athleticism becomes a job it becomes harder for the athlete to step back when their emotional, mental, or physical health needs to rest. Then we hear about those stories as well – the top performer who struggled with addiction or depression when their ability was gone. Too many of them end up dying through suicide. When I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition that needs management as an adult, that lived experience with finding a new love reassured me that I could survive and thrive even when my body did not work as I hoped – even if it meant that my dream of running a half marathon before forty was gone as well.

Raven Saunders is a perfect example of what happens when an athlete cannot find that balance and then no longer can compete at the same level or in the same way. She competed in the Shot Put in Rio in 2016 and placed fifth. She has publicly spoken of her struggles when she returned, and before resuming training to push to Tokyo.

“Track was my first love ... (it) gave me that oomph to push in the environment that I was in," says Saunders. I wasn't necessarily fulfilled because being a young, Black, LGBTQ woman in America and being in Mississippi -- the (most) old school of old school places that you can find in America -- it was really hard going through a phase of trying to learn and find myself in a place where I didn't fully feel accepted. Through all of that, that became the toughest thing. It's like I'm trying to learn to find myself, but I can't do that. And the only thing I have is track and then when track goes wrong, it's like I have nothing.” [1]

Added to all of this is a racial reality that in this nation we still act as if Black athletes must perform to build the wealth and prestige of a nation where those same athletes are watching Black and Brown people dying in their hometown streets. Story after story came out after George Floyd’s death - top athletes, military personnel, politicians, and celebrities reporting on racial profiling they had experienced. There is an emphasis that those playing the game owe their nation their health and ability, but we fail to address institutionalized racism to create a nation (or a world) where people are safe when they step off the field or out of the arena. From Jesse Owens performing in Nazi-controlled Berlin to represent a nation living under Jim Crow, to Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in 1968 and losing their medals, the US Olympic teams have always treated Black athletes like they owe a nation that has terrorized and abused them a performance.

Black and Brown female athletes have had it even worse. The Olympics still forces women to perform in bikinis and leotards while male athletes are allowed to maintain their modesty and still compete, sexualizing all female-bodies but also contributing more to a historical legacy of hyper-sexualizing Black women’s bodies. It has seen multiple Black women banned from events because of their natural hormone levels. It has seen swimming caps banned for “not following the natural curve of the head” which is a fancy way of normalizing white, European features and pretending it is not racist. And even though many athletes have not been able to compete for health reasons over the years, the vitriol of attacks is aimed at Black and Brown women when they reach that moment and decide to step out of the game and back into life.

Rarely mentioned in this blame and shame game that is launched when another top athlete occasionally stumbles or decided to refocus their priorities is the truth that for an athlete to reach the top, they start training as early as preschool. A top hockey player in high school usually has seven to ten years on the ice before they make a team. A top swimmer has likely given up any normal childhood for 4 am pool calls and weekends on the road. The experiences of our childhood and youth allow us to develop the tools and skills for the future and while some top athletes can gain those while training, for others the training and push to be the best become a form of trauma that can take a lifetime to overcome.

Finally, there is an actual building cost that should make us reconsider. The same few nations of the world keep bidding to host the Olympics because they are the only ones who can afford it. Building an Olympic venue comes at a huge cost, and these giant complexes sit abandoned and empty all over the world once the games end. The Olympics may be intended to bring the world together, but every level of the event divides nations (and people) through unaddressed disparities in international economic resource distribution.

At what point do we stop as a nation and realize that there is a cost to centering winning over enjoyment? This is a question that widens beyond just sports – to include the lived experiences of child actors and performers in all contexts. We have heard of the abuse of coaches like Larry Vassar, but we must also center the experiences people like Corey Haim who struggled with mental wellness his entire life after he was abused by others in Hollywood and people like Brittney Spears who has been forced to keep performing to keep supporting others. Even if a child desires to compete, it must be the responsible action of the adults in their life to make certain they achieve balance and grow in all areas of human-ness, not just their physical ability.

As we continue to discuss what it means to build a world where all are given the tools to succeed and thrive, we must do better to support athletes not just on the field, but off it. We must allow every person to grow, to change, to adapt, and to walk away if they choose – even if they literally turn around and walk away from a sporting event that they have trained for their entire life. Because in the end, it is their life, their body, and their mental health.

see also:

Royalty-free stock photo ID: 1338771659 SAN JOSE, CA/USA - OCTOBER 21, 2018: Tommie Smith and John Carlos statue on the campus of San Jose State University. By Ken Wolter

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