Olympic pole vault medallist admits she struggled after the highs of Tokyo and explains why she wants to see athletes receiving help in dealing with the Games experience
For some athletes, 2022 offered the chance to follow up the Tokyo Olympics in spectacular style. For others, however, things have not been quite so straightforward.
When Holly Bradshaw returned from Japan with a bronze medal, it was the culmination of years of hard work. It represented reaching the pinnacle of her sport. The strange thing was that, when she came home, the British pole vault record-holder found herself lacking in energy and motivation.
She recalls the autumn of 2021: “I achieved something that I wanted to achieve my whole life but, when I returned home, I had no energy and felt down for a good few months.
“I would just lie on the sofa and get upset for no reason, which is not like me at all. My husband would say: ‘What’s wrong?’ And I couldn’t tell him because I didn’t know anything was wrong and I couldn’t explain it.”
Bradshaw was recovering from glandular fever but also thinks she was suffering from “post-Olympic blues” and is determined to help others understand it and see safeguards put in place.
Her interest in the subject resulted in the publication of an academic paper* which starts: “The post-Olympic period is complex and distressing for many Olympic athletes; preparing for the likely impacts of the Olympic Games amongst returning athletes is fundamental in managing the negative responses articulated as the post-Olympic blues.”
While an Olympic pole vault competition is, at face value, no different from a World Championships, the hype surrounding it takes things to a new level and creates way more pressure on the athlete.
There is, what researchers have called, the “celebritisation” of Olympic athletes, in a way that does not happen with the World Championships. The Olympics is always in the news. Everything seems to be about the Olympics. Athletes are invited to a kitting-out ceremony to receive the full range of GB logoed clothing, while individual sponsors make a fuss of the athletes and at the Games they receive gifts.
“Loads of things are thrown at you to make you feel special,” says Bradshaw, whose 2022 was blighted by injury. “You feel that you’re part of something really special and that is great. But then there is that stark comparison when you come home and you have nothing. And that is difficult for athletes.
“My experience, and that of a lot of other athletes I think, is constantly hearing ‘you’re amazing, you are special, going to the Olympics’ and then the day you get home and it’s nothing – no support.”
There is also what has been called the “commodification” of athletes. At the Rio Olympics, Bradshaw came fifth but felt like she was a failure or, rather, felt that other people saw her as such.
“I felt I’d done a really good job finishing fifth and I was really happy but it seemed that nobody really cared. No one said ‘well done, amazing effort’ or anything like that. I felt I came home to being a failure because I didn’t win a medal.
“For me, that was really hard because I thought I’d done a good job. We all know that everyone wants to go out and do a PB and win a medal but that need not be your sole goal. And for me, changing that mentality to ‘I’m doing it because I love it. I’m doing it because it’s fun’ has helped me to be happier and to stay in the sport.
“It is in the culture of sport that you are there to win and that is hammered home. But there are not many organisations out there which promote an intrinsic culture. Some sports have a ‘what it takes to win’ model and I think that’s what’s wrong with sport. Perhaps a better motto would be ‘be the best prepared, the best supported athletes out there’.”
In the paper, Bradshaw cites the example of seats on the plane home from the Olympics being allocated by performance, with medal winners at the front and “losers” at the back – even if those “losers” had achieved a PB or reached the final of their events – as something which “sends the wrong message about what sport is about”.
One of Bradshaw’s suggestions is the appointment of a welfare or care officer, there with the sole goal of ensuring that everyone is okay. Someone “to support people but not in a sports psychology capacity but just as someone who could listen, support and give advice”. This was tried at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Bradshaw also feels it is important that the care officer is not the team sports psychologist. Her research found that a lot of athletes were very hesitant about speaking to the team psychologist because they were wondering “is this conversation confidential or will it be fed back to management?”
Bradshaw also believes more use could be made of former athletes in supportive or mentoring roles. “For example, former European champion, James Dasaolu has just retired. He could be a help to young up and coming sprinters,” she says.
“I would love to see an organised peer to peer athlete support group with the involvement of British Athletics and with some investment. I think it was Roger Black who recently said in AW that he doesn’t understand why he has never been asked to help.”
» Holly Bradshaw, Karen Howells & Mathijs Lucassen (2022) Abandoned to manage the post-Olympic blues: Olympians reflect on their experiences and the need for a change, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health can be found at tandfonline.com
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