Olympic athletes deserve some slack for emotional reactions after competition

The pressure on Olympic athletes to perform and to achieve comes not only from within, it comes from the fact they are literally standing on the world's biggest stage. Shireen Ahmed asks: Do we really know how we would handle that?

Normalizing emotions getting 'the better' or worse of athletes

U.S. speed skater Erin Jackson is shown surrounded by members of the media after winning gold in the women's 500-metres on Sunday at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

When U.S. speed skater Erin Jackson won gold in the 500m, she barely had time to process her victory before she was overcome with emotion. The photos of Jackson, the first Black woman to win an Olympic medal in this sport, perfectly captured what this win meant for her.

Jackson's road to Beijing was not seamless but the story is incredible. During the Olympic trials Jackson fell during competition and Brittany Bowe (who placed first) gave up her spot on the team so Jackson could go to the Olympics.

The U.S. ended up having another spot, so Bowe ended up going, too. She placed 16th at the event.

As Jackson sat crying with joy, the world revelled that she was the Olympic champion. This was a win for speed skating, for the Black community, and particularly for that U.S. team. I thought a lot about Jackson, Bowe and their camaraderie, but also the raw emotions on display at the Olympics.

We have seen other athletes thrilled for their friends and opponents, including American Ashley Caldwell, who won silver in the women's aerials — the same event where her friend and competitor Mengtao Xu of China clinched the gold. I was a puddle just watching them hold each other through tears after their bodies were most likely exhausted from exertion and adrenaline.

But it isn't always beautiful and heartwarming. Sometimes it is painful and devastating.

While certain athletes are celebrating wildly, there are others weeping in agony and defeat. The moments following the end of a race or event are so overwhelming with media attention, introspection, coaching discussions, or an overview of judges' scores. It can be cumbersome for athletes to find a moment to reflect and process.

Then there are the ones whose visceral reactions are so intense and so steeped in uncontrollable anguish after a loss.

I remember when the Canadian women's national soccer team lost to the United States in the semifinals of the 2012 London Olympics. Canada was up 3-2 before a series of bizarre refereeing decisions became part of a story that saw the U.S. win  and advance.

That defeat was crushing, particularly after the result was due to a rarely enforced call on Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod by the Norwegian official, and then a call against Canadian defender Marie-Ève Nault. The U.S. tied the game and minutes before extra-time ended, Alex Morgan scored to seal the U.S. win.

I saw the pain and frustration on the faces of those Canadian women. I still consider it one of the greatest officiating injustices in Canadian sports history. And if I am still so upset about it 10 years later (despite a gold medal win from CanWNT this past summer) what would the impact have been on the players at the time. 

Canada's Sophie Schmidt looks dejected after defeat against the United States at the 2012 Olympics. (Jason Cairnduff/Action Images)

I don't recall them being able to offer hearty congratulations to their rivals due to the circumstance. But should it matter? Athletes need to be able to feel what they feel without the rest of the world passing judgment, particularly when they are physically and emotionally spent.

Emotional crashes at major events

There is also research that athletes experience emotional crashes after mega events and major tournaments. Dr. Scott Goldman, a noted sports psychologist, says there can be a floodgate of emotions that can sometimes lead to issues with mental health for athletes. If their initial reactions to their results are unsupported, how will these athletes think to ask for help if they need it later? Guilt and shame may take over.

High-level athletic competition is not simply an act of physiology. It takes incredible mental strength. Not everyone may feel like they (accompanied by their broken hearts) are in a position to fete the competition, or act as fans and media feel is appropriate.

Canada's Max Parrot, left, celebrates his gold medal with bronze medallist and teammate Mark McMorris following the men's slopestyle final at the Beijing Games. McMorris criticized judging on Parrot's run, which we subsequently apologized for. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
This past week, Canadian snowboarder Max Parrot won the snowboard slopestyle event and fellow Canadian Mark McMorris got bronze. McMorris told CBC Sports that a judging error cost him and silver-medallist Su Yiming a higher position on the podium. McMorris noted that Parrot grabbed his knees instead of the board, but since the judges' feed was not the best, they didn't see the mistake and there was no deduction.

"But knowing that I kind of had the run of the day and one of the best rounds of my life and the whole industry knows what happened — pretty, pretty crazy," McMorris said.

There were people who were quick to call out McMorris and the media turned to Parrot, who refused to get baited into a feud. McMorris eventually apologized, saying he let his emotions get the better of him.

I realize that many felt like McMorris overstepped and was unsportsmanlike. But Parrot accepted his teammate's apology and they have more podiums to climb. That's what the focus should be.

As the conversations around mental-health and sports become less stigmatized, I think it's imperative that we understand that not all athletes will respond the same way to their wins or losses. They may not extend gestures of gratitude or they may not be gracious in a loss. We should not be quick to assume that they are acting terribly.

The physical toil and emotional drain they navigate to get to the Olympics is something that 99 per cent of the world may never understand. The pressure to perform and to achieve is not only from within, they are literally standing on the world's biggest stage. Do we really know how we would handle that?

At the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, Canadian hockey player Jocelyn Laroque removed her silver medal after a crushing loss to the U.S. in a shootout. Laroque later admitted she meant no disrespect and has a lot of affinity for those who have won all colours of medals, but like McMorris, her emotions got the better of her. Laroque was blasted for lack of sports etiquette.

Jocelyne Larocque of Canada, centre, refuses to wear her silver medal after losing to the United States at the 2018 Olympics, which many criticized. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Perhaps we should reconsider normalizing emotions getting "the better" or worse of athletes. I get frustrated and cranky after taking too many turns in my daily Wordle puzzle let alone after missing a chance to stand on the podium as an Olympic champion. 

Athletes are not superhuman nor devoid of emotions. As we cheer them and their physical feats, we should hold space for the range of emotions that may ensue. They are after all, humans, too.

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