Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Stress and the Olympic Games

It is hard to imagine the stress under which Olympic athletes perform. They have devoted their young lives to this event, to a space of time which, for some, is counted in seconds and microseconds, and for others, like marathoners, is counted in hours -- a lifetime of preparation for the glory of being known as the best, or one of the best at what they do.

But being able to function at the highest level while under tremendous stress is something many of us do, and, at some periods of our lives, we do so for months and months. There is no way to train for the stress of losing jobs, failing marriages, being laid off at an age when getting a new job paying as much as the old one is close to impossible. There is no way to train for the unexpected and life-threatening illness of a spouse or child. There is no way to train for the death of a spouse or child.

Yet, most of us endure. Some of us live well with stress and mentally place a beribboned gold medal over our heads to dangle brightly where only we see it.
Most of us, I suspect, are more akin to the last runner who completes the marathon, the one who stumbles onto the track of the Olympic stadium long after the other runners have showered, dressed and left. We made it but we hope and pray we never have to go through anything like that again.

As I watch the athletes, most of them basking in the arrogant beauty of youth, I wonder how they will handle the stress when their youth inevitably fades. How will they respond to the stress of having their gold medals fade into the memory of the records, they and their triumphs remembered by fewer and fewer.

An article in the August 18 issue of The New York Times reported on two studies of what life is like for these athletes after the Olympics. A 1982 study of 163 Czech Olympians found that "only 17 percent made the transition to the workplace without significant emotional distress, including substance abuse and depression." The most complete study was done of 57 American Olympians in 12 sports. Forty percent had "serious problems post-Olympics."

I do not envy the Olympians, especially the medal winners. They do not know how short our memories are, as I cannot tell you who won a medal in any sport at the last Olympics. I do not envy them because I know the stresses that will weigh on their souls as they begin to create their lives outside the athletic venues which gave their lives meaning and significance. Sometimes, the stress of just getting through the day will be far greater than any stress they knew as Olympians.

None of us can train for what life presents us with, but, somehow, many of us endure, and more often than not, we triumph. But only we can see the gold medal shining against our bodies.

And that's enough.

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