The Atlantic meant well. Its post-Olympics feature examines the depression that athletes often suffer after such sports events, as they strive to cope with their futures and stress linked to big wins and big defeats.
It's a literate, sympathetic piece, gently but incisively examining the emotional crash; the reluctance to ask for help; how intensely athletes identify with their achievements; how much they fear losing themselves by losing in competition.
Almost every angle is covered, it seems, but -- you knew this was coming -- the spiritual one. The story leaves Mount Olympus haunted with religious "ghosts."
This is the kind of eloquent passage that makes me loathe to write off the article totally:
Take the Michigan-born swimmer Allison Schmitt. After winning five medals, three of them gold, and setting a world record in the 2012 London Games, Schmitt sank into a hole from which she couldn’t emerge. She had no idea why she felt depressed -- especially considering her undeniable success -- but realized she needed counseling. The decision didn’t come easily; depression is still a dirty word in the locker room.
"I didn’t want to show my weakness," she said in an interview with Channel 4 in Detroit. "I didn’t want to ask for help, but in this situation I found out … that I couldn’t keep fighting it by myself. … There’s this thing that they call post-Olympic blues and I think I had a little bit of that and I kept isolating myself and isolating myself."
The Atlantic also quotes sports psychologist Scott Goldman noting that the Olympics amount to a "hundred-mile-per-hour ride" that "comes to a screeching halt." He says the sudden end leaves athletes "just physiologically depleted, as well as psychologically."
Some past champions' stories are also retold. Mark Spitz set seven records at the 1972 Olympics, but found it hard to function in any other job. And Taraje Murray-Williams retired from judo competition after the Beijing Olympics, although he was able to start a financial services business.
That's the big take-away in this article: "Build an identity off the playing field." Says Kristin Keim, another sports psychologist. "You have to separate the individual from the result."
The Atlantic doesn't quite claim to have discovered the wheel, but it doesn't account for other sports stars who have found their way out of the ego trap. Nearly 17 years ago, I interviewed Norm Evans, a veteran of the Miami Dolphins. Evans noticed a lot of pro figures losing their sense of identity after retirement. As he told me, "If you are what you do, what are you when you're not doing it?" Athletes are not alone in facing that puzzle, but most hit that wall at a much, much younger age.
His answer, as a Christian, was to find his identity in the God who made him and still watched over him. He decided to offer the same to others in sports, first through Pro Athletes Outreach, then through Coaches Time Out.
And you don’t have to dig into news archives for athletes who anchor themselves in their faith. Here, I may sound almost like I'm doing a GetReligionista roll call. Here goes, anyway.
Try 2016 Olympic archer Mackenzie Brown, identified by the Religion News Service as an evangelical. Or swimmer Simone Manual, who, as tmatt notes, has offered "All glory to God! Isn’t He awesome!" in her tweets.
And how about Jamaica's gold medalist runner Usain Bolt, often seen throwing a kiss up to God before one of his jaw-dropping sprints? The Epic Pew blog reports (as tmatt noted this morning) that Bolt also wears a copy of the Miraculous Medal, which has an image of Mary on one side and a Marian prayer on the other. That famous Bolt pose? He's pointing at Mary and also up to heaven.
You also may have heard of one Michael Phelps, who has become the biggest gold medal winner in Olympic history. Phelps had pulled his life out of a drunken tailspin after reading Rick Warren's bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life" -- a fact lost on the Los Angeles Times, to cite tmatt again, although Warren's church is in the newspaper's back yard.
Another good subject for the Atlantic would have been Rajeev Ram, a silver medalist in doubles tennis with teammate Venus Williams. As he told the Washington Post:
“Part of the Hindu religion teaches, more so than anything else, your control of your mind — your self-control, basically,” Ram said. For many, that self-control applies to an individual’s mastery over his moral and ethical choices. But for Ram, self-control also meant mastery of his body.
“Obviously, your body’s going to do what your mind tells it to do. If you can have that inner control, a sense of peace, your body’s going to follow,” he said.
It’s an idea his parents taught him: They cared not so much whether he won or lost his tennis matches as a child but whether he controlled his temper.
And how did the Atlantic forget Olympic divers David Boudia and Steele Johnson, who won silver for the U.S. team in Rio?
The two friends and teammates were vocal about their faith, and Boudia is a perfect example of someone whose life crashed after winning gold in London and he had to bounce back to get to Rio. He credits his faith as the key to that journey:
"There's been an enormous amount of pressure. I've felt it," Boudia, who still will compete in the individual platform, told an NBC national audience. "It's just an identity crisis. When my mind is on this [diving], and I'm thinking I'm defined by this, then my mind goes crazy. But we both know that our identity is in Christ, and we're thankful for this opportunity to be able to dive in front of Brazil and in front of the United States. It's been an absolutely thrilling moment for us."
"The way David just described it was flawless -- the fact that I was going into this event knowing that my identity is rooted in Christ and not what the result of this competition is just gave me peace ... and it let me enjoy the contest," Johnson told NBC. "If something went great, I was happy. If something didn't go great, I could still find joy because I'm at the Olympics competing with the best person, the best mentor -- just one of the best people to be around. God's given us a cool opportunity, and I'm glad I could come away with an Olympic silver medal in my first-ever event."
As you can see, some of the reporting was good, some was flawed. But none of the Olympians above is mentioned in the Atlantic article -- none except Phelps. And that reference is scrubbed of any spiritual facet. It says only that "after a DUI in 2014, [he] checked himself into rehab and was able to reignite his passion for competitive swimming."
Just before the Olympics began, our own Bobby Ross Jr. wondered how many reporters would bother to speak with athletes who ask God for help. "What about the more than just a few athletes who are bound to proclaim that their faith helped them excel. Or sustained during the disappointment that followed failure on the field?"
We now have an answer: a few journalists bothered. But not at the Atlantic.