Olympians are human too

Christopher Schwarting ’24

What is the price to pay for being an athlete? Of course, there is the training, the equipment, the lessons—as one progresses, then arises the travel and the physical strain. How often, though, do we consider the mental side of sports? 

The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics concluded on February 20, 2022, amid some controversial events. In a gathering of the world’s elite athletes, there was no escaping the tension of a diplomatic boycot of the Olympics by U.S. officials amid a still-pressing pandemic. With the weight of national pressure on athletes’ shoulders, nerves and mental stress infiltrate the conscience. 

This proved true at the 2022 Winter Olympics.

The opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

Amid headlines for the games were eighteen-year-old skier Eileen Gu and nineteen-year-old figure skater Zhu Yi (Beverly). Both Californian natives, the duo were part of several American-born athletes competing for China. While many embraced them, some Americans criticized the two for what they saw as a betrayal to their birth country. Chinese reception was also mixed. After winning two gold medals, Gu was transported to worldwide—and greater Chinese—stardom. Zhu, however, failed to land jumps in the women’s singles short program. Following her mistake, the hashtag #ZhuYiFellDown began trending on the Chinese media platform Weibo. Chinese criticism largely silenced support for the figure skater. 

According to Reuters, Zhu reflected on her competition by saying, “I guess I felt a lot of pressure because I know everybody in China was pretty surprised with the selection for ladies’ singles and I just really wanted to show them what I was able to do, but unfortunately I didn’t.” 

Not only did Zhu have to reconcile internal pressure during and after the competition, but she also had to deal with hatred and criticism. It’s likely this factored into her performance. The contrast between her reception and that of Gu reveals a clear double-standard in the reception of athletes based on their success and their ability to bring victory for their delegation.

The Russian Olympic Committee’s doping scandal that surrounded fifteen-year-old figure skater Kamila Valieva brought further controversy. Considered by some to be the best the sport has ever seen, she was the frontrunner in the women’s singles event. Her effortless attempts at quads, high-scoring hand positioning, and perfect execution were expected as she exited the women’s short program in the lead. However, after leading the Russian Olympic Committee to victory in the team event, she tested positive for a banned heart drug. Attributing the positive test to accidentally consuming her grandfather’s medication, a stance disputed by many, she was suspended by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency before having the suspension canceled. The Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) permitted her participation in the women’s singles event, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) expressed its stance by threatening to postpone the medal ceremony if she placed. In her final skate program, Valieva fell multiple times, dropping out of contention for a medal. She left the ice distraught and the world in shock.

Kamila Valieva skates in the 2019 Junior Grand Prix Final – via Wikimedia Commons

At only fifteen years old, the test shifted attention to the adults surrounding Valieva. Eteri Tutberidze, her coach, is also the coach of the gold and silver medalists in the singles event. While celebrated for her success, Tutberidze’s skaters are also known for shortened career spans and enduring abuses. It’s unlikely a fifteen-year-old willingly took drugs without the encouragement of her support team. And despite being supported by Russians upon her return home, some believe Tutberidze yelled at Valieva  as she left the ice during her failed routine. Valieva was supposed to do it all: to win, to push boundaries, to set records. But the hunger for success from those around her left her with a torn mental state as a result of her final event.

All this is not to say there were no successes at the Winter Olympic games this year. The Olympics celebrate sportsmanship and athleticism—they define sport. They allow the best to assemble, push boundaries, compete, and break records. American figure skater Nathan Chen redeemed his lack of placement in 2018 to win gold in the men’s singles event while speed skater Erin Jackson became the first Black woman to win a Winter Olympic gold in speed skating. Despite three-time gold medalist and snowboarder Shaun White not leaving with the medal he wanted, he too celebrated the accomplishments of his career before retiring at the end of the games.

It’s time we prioritize the mental health of the person that is often forgotten exists in every athlete.

What it does mean, however, is that the athletes we view on any stage—those that we root for, bet on, and hopefully will bring home the gold for our teams—are not just competitors: they are people. They make mistakes, feel pressure, and experience criticism from coaches and the general public. To suffer the mental strain of public humiliation, in addition to the already taxing nature of being a professional athlete, is unfair to the athletes who push their limits each day. Zhu and Valieva were evaluated based on if they won gold, and when they came under the pressure of others—whether it be fans or their teams—they messed up. 

It’s time we prioritize the mental health of the person that is often forgotten exists in every athlete.