Transition from Olympic bubble not as straightforward as going home

Many athletes find normal life extremely difficult after the high of competing on greatest stage

Con Houlihan always said he missed most of Italia 90 because he was away at the World Cup. Something feels similarly removed about being in Rio these past two weeks, as if the Olympics we see and you see are two different things.

It’s not just the bus trips and security checks, and industrial amounts of pure adrenaline: the only people who can begin to understand what the Olympic bubble is like are those who have stepped inside it, and no one can fully understand what it’s like to step outside again. Everyone has to meet the real world again on their own terms, and God knows what it must be like for the athletes.

Because for them the transition must be infinitely more magnified, given most have dedicated at least four years of their life in getting here, and sometimes take just as long trying to find a way out.

"It's just been so, so cool," is how Thomas Barr describes it so far, in the aftermath of his fourth-place finish in the final of the 400m hurdles, "It is that bubble, that little community, and it's so cool to be a part of it. And I'm looking forward to getting the Olympic tattoo now, because I definitely think I've earned it.


Athletic peak

“It’s also great to have had all the support here, those who stood by [you] through the really tough times, because that’s when you need the support most. It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon when things are going well, but when things aren’t going so well, that’s when you really need the support.”

Right now Barr may well feel Tokyo 2020 can’t come round fast enough: still only 24, he should be at his athletic peak in four years’ time and, if he can run 47.97 seconds off a summer partly wrecked with injury, his possibilities are only beginning to shine.

Watching Barr's performance in Rio with considerable interest was fellow Waterford one-lap hurdler Susan Walsh (nee Smith), who retired not long after the Sydney Olympics. She'd gone there having made a similar breakthrough in the women's 400m hurdles, making the Olympic semi-final in Atlanta in 1996, then the World Championship final in Athens a year later, the first Irish woman to make a global final in a sprint event.

In 1998, she ran an Irish record of 54.31, which still stands, although by the time Sydney rolled around, things had changed.

“I hope Thomas doesn’t lose that wide-eyed joyfulness,” says Walsh, who now lives with her family in the US. “I remember that feeling so well, it reminds me of myself in 1996 and 1997, which were amazing. By Sydney it was all gone, I hated the pressure. It was still all pretty incredible, but I wonder what it’s like to be competing with all the social media/internet now. I imagine it compounds the pressure and expectations.”

Perfectly contrasting Barr's Olympic experience on the track was 800m runner Ciara Everard, who came to Rio off a season entirely wrecked by injury, and despite every possible effort to retain some level of racing fitness, finishing eighth and last in her opening round heat, clocking 2:07.91

With that some people questioned the sense of her decision to even compete, and might she have been better off staying at home – not just for physical reasons but psychological ones too. Everard didn’t hide the emotional scaring in the aftermath of her race, part of the reason for that being she’d invested so much time and effort into Rio, only to get zero return.

At the start of the year, she took time off from her work as a physiotherapist and moved to South Africa to train full-time, to give herself the best possible chance of peaking in Rio: at age 26, this was her time.

Then, in May, she picked up a stress reaction in her foot, requiring a 10-week layoff, and another three weeks of cross-training, but no running.

“I feel I made the classic mistake of pushing too hard in Olympic year, and just broke down,” she says. “I’d stayed as positive as I could coming in, we did everything we possibly could, to get as best prepared, but it’s been a very difficult road, and I don’t think that’s actually a reflection of where I’m at.

‘Back of the field’

“Everyone is just going to see the performance here, me at the back of the field, and think ‘what have I done . . . how have I progressed . . . .’ but in my mind mentally I feel I’ve come on a huge amount like this year, and I still feel the best years are to come.

“We throw everything at it, these were the cards we were dealt, and I just tried to play my hand as best as possible. But I think when it’s the Olympic Games, it’s a risk I had to take. And I think other athletes in my position would probably do the same.”

Everard is now that athlete Barr is talking about, the one in need of support "when things aren't going well". There is an increasing awareness of this at both athlete and administrative level, with the Athlete Performance Transition Programme, set up in the aftermath of the London Olympics. It was no coincidence that Gary Keegan, the former performance director the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, was the man behind this, and although he's since moved on from Sport Ireland, the transition programme plays an increasingly important role, whether athletes were successful in Rio or not.

Keegan saw exactly how so many athletes struggled post-Beijing, in 2008: seven months after winning silver in Beijing, Kenny Egan officially went awol, later admitting that drink was driving his boxing career down the drain, and only thanks to family and friends was he able to save it.

Then a little over a year after winning bronze in Beijing, Darren Sutherland was found dead in his apartment in London, his Olympic success, and the pressure to build on that professionally, driving him into such a deep depression that suicide seemed like the only escape.

Sutherland wasn't alone: marathon runner Martin Fagan found the pressure and expectation of post-Beijing almost as hard to handle, and ended up in a deep depression before committing career suicide – and as unforgivable as any doping offence should be, there was no denying Fagan's had fallen through some cracks in the post-Olympic support system.

After running the Olympic marathon in 2012, Linda Byrne endured something similar, finding the highs of London increasingly hard to replace, before also experiencing a deep depression. Somehow by accident, rather than design, Byrne was able to find a way out of it.

Another former Olympian convinced more needs to be done to assist athletes in their transition from the bubble to the real world is rower Gearoid Towey, who describes his post-Olympic transition as "dark and solitary".

Towey competed in three Olympics, starting in Sydney 2000, aged 23, finishing in Beijing 2008, in both the lightweight doubles and fours. He is now living in Sydney, and has set up the Crossing the Line Sport organisation for the sole purpose of assisting athletes through that transition – not just from the Olympic bubble.

“For me, a lot of it was self imposed,” says Towey. “In my time there was no real debrief. It was a case of going back home, picking up the pieces and ‘hardening up’ to start the next cycle. And not medalling at the Games is a hollow experience, if you go there with realistic medal ambitions.

“You feel like a loser, even though you are still an Olympian. Nobody really prepares you for the dark feelings you might have if you don’t produce a medal. It is also hard for people outside the Olympics to comprehend. Most think you’d be happy because you are an Olympian but the Olympics is full of high achievers who will generally be hugely disappointed if they don’t produce.

“So my post games experiences always involved some kind of epic travel or adventure so that I could escape what was going on in my head. I would have been better off debriefing and getting some peace around my results first before heading off. But I didn’t know any better and in any case, the option wasn’t there.”

Towey also threw himself into drama school, in London, but soon discovered he was still running away from the void left by his sporting career.

“The regret I have in relation to my transition was that I wasn’t patient. I moved from one thing to the next without really slowing down and taking my time to work it out. There are lots of transferrable skills you can take from being an athlete into normal life but there’s also a lot of things about being an athlete that you should probably leave in the Olympic Village. It is a process to work that out.”

Transition process

Now, with Crossing The Line, Towey deals with the various stages of this transition process, because it certainly doesn’t begin at the end of an athlete’s career: “I was reading so much on the topic and realised how many were depressed, dead, in jail or bankrupt. It was morbid reading. Then I spoke to athletes and realised how many were suffering in silence. Once I saw that, I couldn’t un-see it, especially when I immediately had an idea of how I could make a difference.

“This work should be a no-brainer for athletes. Millions of dollars are spent on the latest gadgets, to get these marginal gains. What gets missed is that a massive gain can be achieved by creating an open culture where athletes feel happy, connected and empowered. That doesn’t cost a lot of money but requires courage to implement.”

Let’s hope they haven’t missed too much of that Olympic experience by being away in Rio.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics