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Olympic disappointment: The psychology of failure

The Story

Olympic athletes run the risk of being judged a success or a failure in life based on one moment in time, we hear in this CBC Radio clip. Growing up as a budding world-class athlete doesn't necessarily prepare anyone for the tremendous pressure of the Games, says sports psychologist Peter Jensen. Ken Read, a Canadian skier who knows the bitter taste of Olympic defeat, has seen athletes who didn't quite achieve their goals and never got past the disappointment. John McMurtry, a philosopher and former pro football player, cites a survey of Olympic athletes asking whether they would shorten their lifespans in exchange for a gold medal. The result? More than half said yes. 

Medium: Radio
Program: The Inside Track
Broadcast Date: Feb. 8, 1992
Guests: Peter Jensen, John McMurtry, Brian Orser, Ken Read
Host: Mary Hynes
Duration: 7:30

Did You know?

• Psychologists have studied the phenomenon of "choking" — performing poorly while under intense pressure. It happens, studies have found, to the most accomplished of athletes. A Michigan State University psychologist has done studies on golfers suggesting they get in trouble if they concentrate too much on a particular action. Training can help athletes overcome the problem, Sian Beilock said.

• An experiment by Debbie Crews, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., suggested that the brain patterns of chokers and non-chokers may differ. Electrodes placed on golfers' brains indicated that in chokers the left side — the analytical, logical part — appeared to interfere with the right side during the important activity. The right side controls spatial relations, balance and timing. In the brains of people who did better under pressure, the left side was quiet during the important task, Crews said.

• Ken Read was a World Cup alpine ski champion. He led the "Crazy Canucks", as Canada's top skiers were known, from 1974 to 1983. Read had gold medal hopes at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., but lost a ski at the top of the hill. He also failed to win a medal in 1976.

• Brian Orser, who is heard in this clip, won two Olympic silver medals in figure skating. That second one came after a memorable duel with American skater Brian Boitano at the 1988 Games. Ann Peel, who is also interviewed, was an internationally ranked race walker with many titles and medals. She was left off the roster of athletes who went to the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, a decision she unsuccessfully appealed.

• The survey John McMurtry refers to in the clip is one of several done by Dr. Bob Goldman, author of Death in the Locker Room: Drugs and Sports. Goldman told the Associated Press in 2003 that, over the years, he has asked groups of world-class athletes if they would take a magic pill that would let them win every competition for five years but then kill them. Consistently, more than half the athletes have said they'd take the pill, Goldman said.


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