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Michael Johnson: “Elite sports can be bad for mental health”

The former American athlete Michael Johnson, four times Olympic and eight world champion, acknowledges that “elite sport can be bad for mental health”, alluding to the cases of the gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka.

On the occasion of World Mental Health Day, Johnson commented in a statement from the Laureus Academy, for which he is an ambassador, that when he heard that Naomi Osaka had withdrawn from the French Open due to mental health issues, “I didn’t know exactly what was going on, which is understandable. now, as Naomi herself has said she’s still trying to figure it out. “

“I was working for the BBC,” Johnson recalls, “when Simone Biles retired from competition during the Tokyo Olympics. I had thought a lot about Naomi since the French Open. This time, I decided, I’m going to wait a bit. Day by day, Simone spoke with sincerity and detail, and the more she did, the closer we got to understanding. “

For the ex-athlete, “The mental aspect of this sport can completely nullify the physical talent of even the best competitor.” “Mental health – he affirms – is a problem that affects us all (…). It is not something that can be diagnosed and analyzed in real time from the broadcast booth or on social networks. We have to listen.”

Johnson describes the pressure that the elite athlete endures like this: “When you get to where I was, or where Naomi and Simone are now, you’re doing your job in front of millions of people. No matter how prepared you are physically, that has a mental cost. I have trained my whole life for this. I love him so much. But I can fail. I may not have this opportunity again. I can let my teammates down. My contract may not be renewed. And everyone is watching, all the time. “

And he cites his own case at the Barcelona’92 Games: “I was 24 years old. I had been undefeated in the 200 meters for two years, I was the world champion and the big favorite for gold in Spain. Then, just before the Games started, I got food poisoning. After recovering from the effects. I didn’t think the illness would affect me on the track. I felt fine. Until the pistol rang to start my tie. At that moment, I felt like I was running in someone else’s body. I went from that race to the quarter-finals, but I didn’t make it to the final. “

“The United States team traveled (to Spain) with sports psychologists and they gave me an appointment to see one right away. The team had recognized that what had happened to me was the kind of thing that could lead to what we call a ‘slump’ – a downward spiral that is hard to get out of. “

“You can start to doubt yourself,” he explains, “and that’s what was happening to me. But as soon as I sat in that hotel room with the team psychologist, I realized that this was not where I needed to be. It may have worked for some people. Not me”.

“I was lucky,” he confesses. “My parents were in Barcelona, ​​as were my brothers (I am the youngest of five siblings). My father came to my hotel room and I knew I could tell him how I felt, what my fears were. And he just listened. Then He said, ‘You haven’t lost a final. You didn’t win this one. But you haven’t been able to compete in it either. ‘

For Johnson, the Barcelona’92 experience was “the biggest disappointment” of his career. “And it didn’t end when I got on the plane back to the United States,” he says. “A couple of weeks later I was sitting at home, still thinking about it. And now I realize I had to think about it. I had to be angry. I had to be disappointed. I had to feel all of this before I could process it. what had happened “.

“Eventually, I started to think more and more about the three medalists from Barcelona. Gold, silver and bronze. I had competed a lot with each of them in the two years before the Olympics. And they had never beaten me. So I started to realize that if we faced each other the following year, the probability that I would cross the finish line in the first place was quite high. He had done nothing wrong. I had not lost my charm. And he was still the fastest 200-meter runner in the world. “

Indeed. At Atlanta ’96, the following Olympics, he experienced “more pressure than at any other time.” “It was partly my thing. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. In 1996 I already knew who I was. I knew that I was happier, and that I was in my prime, under the most intense pressure. “

“If I hadn’t felt safe, I wouldn’t have appealed to the IOC to change the calendar and allow me to compete for the 200m-400m double at an Olympics at home. “He won the gold medal in both finals.

“Today is World Mental Health Day. But do not try to pigeonhole this topic in a drawer. That’s impossible. It affects sports stars and the people with whom you share your life, and it is completely different for each one of them, “he said.

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