Paris (AFP)- The legacy of American gymnastics superstar Simone Biles may not be the four Olympic gold medals she won in her career, but a remarkable meltdown at the Tokyo Olympics that spurred other top athletes to talk about their battles with mental health issues.
Biles’ twisties attack – a condition that means gymnasts lose the ability to orient themselves in the air – is perhaps the most enduring image of the Games.
Since then, retired French football icon Thierry Henry and Irish rugby great Keith Earls have spoken candidly about their issues.
Biles’ setbacks followed Japan’s four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka, who admitted her battles with depression in May last year.
Henry has generally cut a very calm and assured figure on and off the pitch, so his admission came out of nowhere and surprised many.
“Crying 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 cried when I was alone, but I had a hard time not breaking down in public.
“Now I’m crying,” added the Arsenal legend.
Earls has racked up over 90 caps for Ireland and was a key member of the 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam winning squad.
He was diagnosed as bipolar in 2013 after biting the bullet and going to see a psychiatrist.
The 34-year-old’s openness in his 2021 autobiography ‘Fight or Flight: My Life, My Choices’ was described as “inspiring” by his Irish teammate James Ryan.
“My admiration for him (Earls) has grown, the way he’s able to normalize that, that no matter who you are… Mental health doesn’t discriminate,” Ryan said.
Earls says that following his revelations, other teammates decided to go see a psychiatrist.
This transparency seems to have broken the taboo where it was not considered normal for athletes to go see someone to discuss their mental health.
“Twenty years ago, it was the same thing concerning the mental preparation of events”, explains to AFP Greg Decamps, researcher in sports psychology at the University of Bordeaux.
“Nobody said ‘I see a mental coach’.
“We are starting to see the same thing in terms of consultations in sports psychology clinics.
“Because we cannot 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 has followed a long list of cricketers such as Marcus Trescothick, Sarah Taylor and Andrew Flintoff who struggled with mental health issues when he admitted his problems last year, taking four months off to manage his illness.
“I was in a really dark place and had some tough thoughts,” he said in May when he was elevated to captain.
“I now realize that speaking is such a powerful thing and it has completely changed me.”
“There was pain”
That’s not to say that in the cutthroat world of sport the floodgates have fully opened on something some still see as stigma.
“Sport is a world that prides itself on excellence, strength, virility and where any sign of weakness is forbidden,” Decamp said.
“Those who speak out will be considered, often wrongly, as unable to go to a national championship or the Olympics.”
Decamp says teams always keep their lips shut if the reason for a player or athlete’s absence is due to mental health issues.
Some sports bodies, however, have taken steps to address the issue.
In the United States, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) introduced “six months paid mental health leave” in February this year.
This was welcomed by many players, including Cari Roccaro, who played a leading role in getting the NWSL to adopt such a policy after suffering from mental health issues.
“Girls who tear their anterior cruciate ligament still get paid, even if they’re out of the team for months,” Roccaro said in March.
“Why treat a mental injury differently? »
Perhaps surprisingly, success in the field or in the field does not protect you from black dogs of depression.
According to Olivier Krumbholz, coach of the Olympic gold medal-winning French women’s handball team, mental health problems 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 pain”.
© 2022 AFP