This year’s Winter Games has exposed how little the IOC cares about the health and well-being of competitors, and its active role in the promotion of a psychologically damaging sociopolitical context for competition.
As the Beijing Winter Olympics draw to an end after two weeks, pictures of the Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva have made international news. The Russian athlete, who was considered the clear favorite for the gold medal in the women's single event, broke down in tears after ending up fourth following multiple falls during her routine.
Some argue the doping controversy surrounding the 15-year-old, who was cleared to compete despite testing positive for a banned heart drug , put her under tremendous pressure while others expressed concerns for the teenager's mental health.
But as MacIntosh Ross and Eva Pila write, Valieva wasn't the only athlete who faced an unusually stressful experience during these Games.
In a recent letter, Richard Pound, the longest-serving member of the International Olympic Committee, claimed that “the IOC is athlete-centered,” insisting the Olympics “can — and do — make the world a better place.”
He provided no evidence to support these assertions. Certainly, the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games seem to be anything but “athlete-centered.”
This year’s event has exposed how very little the IOC cares about the health and well-being of competitors, and its active role in the promotion of a psychologically damaging sociopolitical context for competition.
Unlike Pound’s claims, there are piles of evidence to suggest that the well-being of Olympians is of secondary importance to pomp and profit.
Shut up and make us money
Even before the Beijing Olympics were underway, athletes were struggling to have their voices heard. In fact, silencing athletes is a feature of the Olympic Charter, rigorously upheld by the IOC and enshrined in Rule 50 that prohibits any demonstrations, political or otherwise, at the Olympics.
Before the Olympics got underway, Yang Shu, a member of the Beijing Organizing Committee, announced that any behaviour or speech against the “Olympic spirit” or Chinese laws and regulations would be “subject to certain punishment.”
COVID-19 has only exacerbated the usual pressure athletes face during the Olympics
In response, athlete’s rights groups are speaking out. In a recent news release, Global Athlete argued that the IOC was suppressing free speech by limiting athlete’s abilities to speak out about human rights issues in China. In doing this, they argue that athletes are being used to legitimize the Chinese government, while at the same time silencing any dissenting voices.
Athlete mental health is contingent upon fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression. An ideologically motivated and COVID-restricted competitive environment can violate an athlete’s rights and potentiate psychological distress. An unsupportive competitive environment is a critical risk factor associated with elite athletes’ mental health vulnerabilities.
COVID-19 protocols and athlete well-being
COVID-19 has only exacerbated the usual pressure athletes face during the Olympics. Like the recent Summer Olympics held in Tokyo, athletes are socially isolated in Beijing, with no family, friends or fans to support them. But athletes at the Winter Olympics are also literally isolated in China’s Olympic “bubble.”
The so-called “bubble” is China’s way of keeping risk of infection as low as possible — a “closed loop” of hotels, conference centres and sporting venues with its own dedicated transport service that ferries athletes, coaches and media personnel back and forth. While a seemingly effective way to keep COVID-19 transmissions low, it is taking a toll on athletes’ mental health.
There is a lack of transparency in how athletes can access mental health services and supports, which is directly at odds with multi-societal consensus statements and the IOC’s own consensus statement that advocates for accessible and barrier-free mental health supports for athletes.
There has been no effort to mitigate this lack of support for athletes in Beijing.
And athletes in isolation have it worse. They’ve complained of issues with food, internet connections and access to training equipment. Officials say they are doing their best, but athletes on social media have been sharing experiences that say otherwise.
Athletes at the Beijing Olympics experienced a different Games
Belgian skeleton competitor Kim Meyleman was shocked and terrified when she was taken to a non-Olympic facility for isolation, with no explanation. The uncertainty — in an authoritarian state no less — clearly traumatized Meyleman, who fought back tears as she explained the situation on Instagram.
Other athletes are also complaining about their quarantine conditions. Russian biathlon competitor Valeria Vasnetsova tested positive for COVID-19 and, like Meyleman, was quarantined off site.
“My stomach hurts,” she told followers on Instagram. “I’m very pale and I have huge black circles around my eyes. I want all this to end. I cry every day. I’m very tired,” She was given the same meal three times a day, for five days straight. The only vegetable provided was a small amount of potatoes.
Helpers in full protective gear at Beijing airport to welcome athletes
Long lasting impact
Rob Koehler, the director of Global Athlete, is very concerned about what he’s seeing in Beijing. He told The Associated Press:
“We’re worried about the entire COVID-19 protocol. We’re worried about the quarantine facilities and we’re worried about everything that’s not published, which is the details, and the devil is always in the details. They haven’t been well-informed and it hasn’t been transparent.”
Athletes at the Beijing Olympics experienced a different Games. They were not only expected to perform under strict rules, but be at their best in a country where anything they say could have serious consequences.
The full extent of the impact this will have on athletes’ psychological well-being remains to be seen — and the Beijing Games have certainly thrown a shadow over the Olympics for years to come.
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