Earlier this month, Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe was caught outside his parents’ suburban Sydney home attempting to break into a neighbour’s van. Police arrived to find the five-time gold medallist disoriented and high on a cocktail of prescription painkillers and anti-depressants. Thorpe was immediately admitted to a rehabilitation clinic, suffering from depression. What does one of the world’s greatest sportsmen have to be depressed about? As it turns out, quite a lot.
A growing body of research indicates that high-achieving sports heroes are more likely to be struck by mental illness and addiction than us garden-variety couch potatoes. The bizarre Thorpe incident sheds light on the struggles faced by many elite athletes adjusting to life after sports. Recent research shows that endurance exercise activates the endocannabinoid system, producing what we know as “runner’s high”, in a similar way to THC. Those joggers you see running past your dark stinky garage while you're sucking on a bong are as high as you are.
A 2012 study of 234 elite Australian athletes found that 34 per cent met the criteria for exercise dependence (the medical term for exercise addiction). The athlete’s brain, just like that of any other addict, becomes “wired up” for the release of euphoria-causing endorphins during exercise. But when the treadmill stops and they have to go back to being normal, exercise addicts suffer from the same withdrawal symptoms as any other addict (depression, irritability, anxiety). They are literally gym junkies.
Over time addicts’ brains develop a tolerance to their drug, which means eventually the high stops coming altogether. A former manager revealed that instead of elation after his Olympic wins, Thorpe, “was incapable of enjoying his success…He just never ever gave himself the chance to enjoy it.” For most of us, an Olympic gold medal would be a pretty cool reminder of a life-defining achievement, and probably something you'd want to show off. But rather than displaying his medals in a trophy cabinet at home, Thorpe sent them away to a bank vault, where they sat unseen for ten years.
Since they're no longer getting their fix from sports, it’s no surprise that when they retire, many athletes turn to drugs and alcohol to get their elusive fix. Former West Coast Eagles AFL star Ben Cousins continues his battle with addiction, and was arrested last month once again for possession of meth. The Brownlow medal winner’s career was cut short by drugs, and despite multiple stints in rehab he still struggles to maintain sobriety. His case is a stark reminder that once the addict is an addict, breaking the cycle becomes an all-consuming and sometimes impossible task. Recovery from addiction appears to be more elusive than a Grand Final victory.
So is there a solution? It can’t be that our elite addicts should be prevented from playing their sports. This would deny them the pleasure of reaching the peak of their natural abilities, and deprive us of people to yell expert advice at when we watch TV. The UK Professional Player’s Federation recommends certain steps can be taken to ease the transition from competition into retirement. These include preparing athletes for life after sport while still competing (through vocational education for example), and retiring on their own terms rather than being forced out due to injury or poor performance. Team management and coaching staff ought to take this on board, caring for their athletes in the transition to retirement as vigilantly as during the playing season. Much like the addict in early recovery, a newly retired sports star needs support to transition into their new life, without relying on old habits to get high.
Twelve Step recovery programs advocate the use of a “sponsor,” a sober mentor for newly recovering addicts. But the groups stress the benefits run both ways; helping another addict is said to strengthen the sponsor’s own sobriety. One way for the retired athlete to transition to “elder statesman,” status is to take on a meaningful role in the development of young athletes as well as sharing their post-competition experience with the newly retired.
One such mentor, Darryl Strawberry (former Major League Baseball star, recovering cocaine addict and one time guest star of The Simpsons) is preparing to open the Darryl Strawberry Recovery Center next month in Florida, offering a rehab program called, “Athletes Helping Athletes.” When a patient arrives, Darryl says, “we tell them to leave their stats and records at the door. The only number they need to worry about here, is the number of days they’ve been sober.”
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