Great efforts required to reach the Olympics
For many athletes, the Olympics are the biggest dream. But the stakes are high. It is common for athletes to take major health, financial and personal risks in order to qualify.
“To reach the Olympics, you need to perform at an absolute top level. It requires years of careful planning and significant investments in terms of time, finances, personal life and professional career. This creates a special career dynamic that means that athletes often take greater risks than they had imagined”, says Astrid Schubring, associate professor of sport science at the University of Gothenburg.
Astrid Schubring has closely followed Swedish elite athletes in two different research projects. In Paths-to-Rio, she followed ten athletes who tried to qualify for the Olympic Games in Rio 2016. The ongoing research project Pathways to World-Class also includes athletes in winter sports who are classed in the world elite. What they have in common is that they try to get through a pinhole. There are both international and national criteria for qualifying for the championships. The Swedish Olympic Committee (SOK) requires, for example, that those selected can compete for a top 8 position or that they show the potential to medal at one of the next upcoming Olympics.
Competed with injuries
”When we interviewed the athletes a year before the championships in Rio, they were very aware of risks and generally considered that the use of painkillers, over strenuous training or weight loss was bad for both their health and performance. But the qualifying phase changed their behaviour. Because they had invested so much, it is difficult to prioritize health before the investment has given the long-awaited result”, says Astrid Schubring.
For example, in the Paths-to-Rio study, the athletes competed with injuries, used painkillers to continue training, and participated in training camps even though they felt exhausted.
“We could see that several struggled with pain and injuries during the qualifying period and thus could not perform at the level they had hoped. For some, it also led to them being unable to qualify in the end. In addition to the short- and long-term injury problems, the road to the Olympics is an emotional roller coaster, which affects athletes psycho-socially. When things do not go as planned, athletes can feel that they have failed and when the Olympic dream disappears, it can lead to a serious crisis”.
Different conditions in different sports
There is a big difference in the conditions for athletes in different sports. The resources organizations offer can provide important support. The athletes who were best able to take care of their health were those who received extensive medical and financial support, had better coordination between club and national teams, had long-term coaching with an emphasis on dialogue and communication and had social support networks in place.
But while some organizations can offer such support, and SOK offers support to selected athletes, others are in a more precarious situation. Many of those who aim to take part in the Olympics or world championships are not professionals, but work or study at the same time as they pursue a career in elite sport.
“Several of those we have interviewed have experienced periods of their careers characterized by uncertain opportunities and income. There are, for example, athletes who have taken out private loans to be able to prepare for the Olympics”, says Astrid Schubring.
The pandemic increases stress
The ongoing pandemic has changed the circumstances for many athletes. For some, the decrease in travels and fewer competitions have been positive. But for most, an already vulnerable situation has worsened. Conditions change all the time and the risk of becoming ill and being quarantined is ever present.
“There are many athletes who are stressed about being tested continuously and traveling. The worst case scenario is to become infected and quarantined just before or during the Olympics. Everything they have trained and fought for can then collapse. I hope that sports organizations have prepared support for athletes in such a situation”.
The pandemic also affects the event as such. What is usually a celebration with athletes and spectators from all over the world will this year be a tightly controlled event with empty stands and travel restrictions.
“They will be able to compete but the athletes will not get to experience the Olympic atmosphere”.
How will it go for the Swedish participants?
“It will be very exciting to follow. There is speculation of a record number of medals. But since I also know the difficulties behind success, I will follow the competitions with mixed feelings. I hope that everyone will be healthy and injury-free and that they can perform their best”.
Text: Carl-Magnus Höglund