August 15, 2012 10:26 am
On Sunday, the Summer Olympics officially ended. The sendoff was grand, and the 16 days of athletics kept the world glued to their screens. Now that it’s over, most people will return to their lives, finding other distractions and ways to entertain themselves. Many miss the Olympics, but no one misses them more than the athletes, who often return home to, well, not much.
“Ordinary life is a lot different than viewing the world from the lofty vantage point of Mount Olympus,” two-time U.S. Olympian Taraje Murray-Williams wrote on his personal blog, after coming home from the judo competition in Beijing. “Nothing feels like it can ‘go back to normal.” The Bronx native’s life in New York City was “sickeningly mundane” next to the “superhero status” of the games, “the sense of fate, destiny—[of] being part of something so big, [so] universal. You are on stage and the whole world is watching you!”
Murray-Williams has coined a term for this feeling: Post-Olympic Stress Disorder or POSD. And it’s not uncommon to see athletes we cheered on at the games come home and fall into depression and drugs. In 1982, a study of Czech Olympians found that over 80 percent of them had substance abuse and emotional problems as they tried to assimilate back into the real world. Americans have it slightly better, only 40 face the same fate.
Many of these athletes are returning home without a job, or without ever having had one. For them, the Olympics was their job, training to compete for your country takes a lot of time. In England, The English Institute of Sport asks their athletes to plan for future careers, helps them write resumes and does mock interviews for jobs. But most places, athletes return home and are left to figure things out for themselves.
Mac Wilkins, a gold medalist in the 1976 Olympics, told KGW that all athletes, even the big ones, will feel the post-Olympic pull. “They’re gonna have a tough summer. It’ll be real difficult,” he said. “What you’ve been focused on for at least the last nine or 10 months, if not the last two or three years, is building toward this one day. And now it’s gone. What do I do now? I don’t have a goal.”
Sport psychologist Brian Baxter told KGW that returning home is a lot like the stages of grief – they’ve lost the thing that they had been training for, the thing that makes them who they are. But if you think average people with depression are stigmatized, imagine being an Olympian. Depression is seen as unbecoming of our strongest men and women. Baxter says athletes should reject that idea, and talk with people about how they’re feeling.
So while we find new ways to pass the time, so do Olympians. We’re just less sad about it.
More from Smithsonian.com:
The Science of the Olympics
Want to Get Rich? Win an Olympic Medal for Azerbaijan
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