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The Olympics, Mental Health, and the Pandemic

By Katelyn Lusher

On July 28th, gymnast Simone Biles, a gold medalist in the 2016 Olympics, shocked the world when she decided to withdraw from the 2020 Olympic gymnastics team finals for mental health reasons. Biles is the most decorated gymnast in history and arguably the most esteemed gymnast in the world right now and the pressure, she said, has been enormous with so many eyes watching her at all times. In a statement explaining her reasons for dropping out, Biles said, “It’s been really stressful this Olympic games, I think just as a whole not having an audience [due to COVID], there are a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week. It’s been a long Olympic process. It’s been a long year” (USA Today). Biles’ words have set off an international debate on mental health that has, quite frankly, been a long time coming. However, Biles’ statement also reflects how deeply the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone’s mental health. For Olympians like Biles, training schedules were off course due to lockdown and quarantining. After years of preparation, athletes had to wait an extra year to compete since the Olympics were canceled in 2020. All of these changes and lack or normalcy are understandably anxiety-inducing for anyone, but would be especially difficult for Olympic athletes who can’t have their support system around them while they compete after what has truly been a long, stressful year and a half.

It’s also important to note, however, that there is no such thing as getting “back to normal.” In fact, we shouldn’t go “back to normal.” When people say “normal,” they are ignoring the fact that before COVID, things were certainly not perfect. The pandemic revealed many things: one, that many employers will not take care of their employees even when there is a public health crisis (such as businesses that refused to close and kept their employees working while cases were spiking, like Hobby Lobby); two, many people discovered that unemployment wages were actually higher than their average weekly wages, which has prompted demands for a higher minimum wage and has subsequently resulted in a labor shortage; and three, being stuck inside with little or no human contact has encouraged greater attention towards mental health. Stressful employment situations and poor labor practices like the ones described have also contributed to a decline in mental health. How can anyone just shake off pandemic trauma and move on like nothing has happened? Why should anyone, like Simone Biles, be forced to continue on when they are suffering?

The fact is, pandemics change the world and they change how people act and think. Historically, pandemics have shaped the course of world history. The Black Death plague from 1347 to 1351, for example, led to a decline in serfdom and a rise in wages for artisans and peasants but also led to a rise in violent anti-Semitism and beliefs in mysticism as people tried to find a cause and solution to the plague. Pandemics like smallpox in the 15th to 17th centuries helped countries expand their empires through colonization but came at a heavy price as millions of indigenous peoples died or were wiped out altogether (Encyclopedia Brittanica). The Spanish flu from 1918 to 1919 is most often cited as the blueprint for handling future pandemics since public health measures changed drastically after the virulent virus killed 50 million people globally. After the Spanish flu, the necessity of implementing a federal plan to prevent the spread of future viruses became apparent, as did the need for more research into influenza viruses (CDC). The COVID-19 pandemic is still causing massive changes in our society, and it is unrealistic to think that everyone can immediately bounce back.

For many, the pandemic has worsened already existing anxiety disorders and depression and caused some to experience those feelings for the first time. Claustrophobia can intensify after over a year of social distancing and travel can feel impossible. We still don’t know what the long-term effects of COVID may look like, but in the present it is clear that many of us feel mentally scarred from seeing news of spiking cases and hearing about friends and family getting sick and dying while also watching people blatantly disregard and scoff at the presence of a virus. To make matters worse, the new delta variant is sweeping across the United States among people who are unvaccinated and not taking preventative measures against COVID. While people who are vaccinated seem to be protected against the delta variant, this provokes anxiety for parents with children who are too young to receive the vaccine and for people who have family members or friends who refuse to get vaccinated—sometimes for reasons that are patently false, like claims that the vaccine causes infertility or inserts a tracking chip. With all of that going on, how can anyone expect that an elite athlete can carry on and remain stoic? As Biles reminds us, Olympic athletes are still human and struggle with mental health like millions of others. In the wake of the pandemic, everyone deserves some grace.

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