The summer Olympics have been over for a week now. My depression from the lack of 24/7 sports to watch is slowly subsiding. Only 1,424 days until the next summer games in Tokyo, 2020! But what will I do with all my spare time for the next four years and what will I use as an excuse for my inevitable procrastination? What will all the Olympians do with their spare time? Where are all the former Olympians anyway?
At a family gathering last weekend, my nephew told us about the Goldman dilemma. Researcher Bob Goldman began asking elite athletes if they would be willing to take a performance-enhancing drug that would guarantee them an Olympic gold medal, but would also kill them within five years. An astounding 50% of the athletes replied, “yes, a gold medal was worth an early death.” Goldman repeated the survey every two years for ten years, always with the same response. A family debate over the preposterousness of this ensued. How could an Olympic medal be worth athletes’ lives? Most everyone in the room had a difficult time believing these numbers. I, however, have had a hunch that elite athletes have been suffering from this very identity crisis for years.
Elite athletes often begin their sports at very young ages. Sometimes they are pressured by parents to pursue college scholarships, fame and financial success through sports. Sometimes athletes themselves put this kind of pressure on themselves. Their sport is all they know. Ask these athletes to define themselves in one word and they will usually reply, “a gymnast,” or “a volleyball player,” maybe “a swimmer.” Given that these athletes may practice their sport for up to 10 hours a day, 6-7 days a week, who else could they be? School age athletes are often home schooled. Older athletes may exist in enclaves of other athletes with similar goals. If they really want to excel, the sport must be their career. It must be their life. Other goals must be left by the wayside. Friends and family are abandoned for love of the game. And for love of the win.
This is a model that sounds great to me! For as long as I can remember I wanted to be the first female to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers. What life could be better than that of a professional athlete? Well, not everyone can be an elite athlete! It takes talent, skill, dedication and a fierce competitive spirit! I have finally accepted the reality that I will not be a professional baseball player. But, isn’t there still a chance for me to be an Olympic archer? Or equestrian? There seems to be no age limit for these sports. The problem is, I am not ready to give up my family, my friends, my career, my hobbies, my identity. Alas, I guess I am relegated to being a spectator of sports for life.
But I am lucky. What happens to all these athletes that are willing to die young for glory in their sport? Once they can no longer claim to be “a rower,” who do they become? Some have been lucky enough to get college degrees and remain grounded. They may go on to successful careers outside of sport. These same athletes have probably had undying support of themselves as a whole from family, friends and professionals. But many try to continue capitalizing on their athleticism and fame. When they run out of options, too many athletes turn to drugs and alcohol to stay in touch with an iota of their former selves.
So, is it possible to succeed as an elite athlete without bargaining your life for gold medals? I believe it is. But it may take an equal dedication to mental health and identity development. Athletes, like non-athletes, who open themselves to a wide range of knowledge, skills and abilities are more likely to hold their athletic accomplishments as wonderful memories, while continuing to embrace a new potential for experiences and memories. These athletes need to devote time to developing hobbies and interests. They need to devote time to relationships with people outside of their sport. Perhaps most important, they need to engage with professionals who can relate to both their athletic and human identities. It is never too late for athletes to find themselves once their competitive career is over. I believe this holds true for active people of all ages and abilities. All of us who identify as "athletes," despite our decreasing ability to remain competitive, need to adopt additional identities. Like everything else in life, balance is a necessity. I know it is impossible to compete at the elite level without the majority of your time dedicated to your sport. But sport (like any other singular activity) must not define you.
Getting back to the Goldman dilemma….non-elite athletes were posed with a similar question. Would they be willing to trade an early death for success in life? The overwhelming answer (248 out of 250 questioned) was "no!" Despite my desperation to be an Olympian, I will stick to the majority on this one. I choose life! And to all those Olympians (and all athletes) out there, I hope you too will take the leap into re-identifying who you are in life!