Olympic Losers Receive Counseling
For Scott Johnson, the blow was swift.
The 1984 gymnastics gold medalist, this year’s strongest American challenger to the Soviet and Eastern Bloc, blundered on the first day of competition, smashing four years of hope for a medal.
“I tried not to let the team down,” Johnson said. “I’m going to retire from the Olympics. I gave it all I’ve got.”
As the toll of losers mounted among those who sought nothing less than to bebest in the world, solemnity replaced joviality in the Athletes’ Village. The bravado and confidence that comes with a dream turned to introspection and doubt. Without a quest to sustain them, the vanquished suddenly faced time on their hands.
“To lose is traumatic, but it is catastrophic for the individual who has been on the verge of world championship,” said Dr. Kevin O’Flanagan, a specialist in sports medicine and member of the International Olympic Committee from Ireland since 1976. “It may alter a lifetime.”
With even a bronze medalist disappointed over his No. 3 spot, leading sports psychologists are questioning whether “going for the gold” mania hasn’t gone too far.
“I just didn’t have a good day,” said Jay Warwick, the men’s welterweight bronze winner in taekwondo, the Korean martial art that made its debut on the Olympic exhibition program.
“In a couple of weeks I’ll think about the bronze medal and be satisfied,” said the five-time U.S. national champion from Bozeman, Mont. “But this was it for me.”
Rallying to the side of the downcast are doctors like Robert E. Leach, head of the United States Olympic Committee’s Sports Medicine Council, advising other physicians, coaches, trainers, and relatives how to help the losers.
“The fact of the matter is the emphasis on gold medals has gone overboard,” Leach said. “The notoriety surrounding them has left some bitterly disappointed at anything less.”
But Leach, the physician for the Boston Celtics for 20 years, said sensitive and supportive campanionship, plus the athletes’ inner resources, are the keys to easing depression.
“Sometimes nothing works,” Leach acknowledged. “I know members of the 1972 basketball team who are still bitter” over the infamous final when the Soviets stunned the Americans and won the gold medal after getting an extra three seconds and sinking a basket at the buzzer.
“Don’t pack your bags and immediately head for home,” Leach advised the beaten. “You’re better off staying around” in reach of the support systems within the teams.
“There is some consolation in the old saying, ‘Misery loves company,”’ said O’Flanagan. “There are plenty of people here sharing similar sentiments.”
The quality of the companionship is essential.
“The athlete who has struggled for years and overcome all the hurdles until now doesn’t need to have the enormity of his feelings minimized,” Leach said. Well-meaning but inappropriate reactions such as, “It’s all right” or “Don’t worry about it” only intensifies the feeling of isolation.