Elaine Tanner (right) and US Olympic legend Mark Spitz in the pool during the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg in 1967.

Elaine Tanner (right) and US Olympic legend Mark Spitz in the pool during the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg in 1967.

COLUMN: Competitive spirit can take its toll

Whether for good or bad, the Olympic Games can take a toll on athletes – often for years after the games have ended.

By Elaine Tanner, Special to Peace Arch News.

I cannot help but wonder how many of the athletes competing in the 2014 Games in Sochi will be significantly changed because of them.

International competition is one thing, but the Olympics is unparalleled when testing the steeliest of nerves.

I know, as I have been there…

Every cell in an athlete’s body is at 100 per cent capacity, having trained and visualized this moment over a lifetime. The difference of a medal finish is measured in a hundredth of a second or a fraction of a centimetre.

There is no margin for error, least of all a chink in one’s psychological armour.

Oftentimes, for those who make the podium, it may not be because they are physically superior but that they are able to perform better under immense pressure.

Being ‘in the zone’ when it counts, an athlete must trust in their training and place their focus on the performance rather than be anxious about the result. To worry about the podium is the death knoll to any potential victory.

I know from firsthand experience that going into the Olympics seated at No. 1 is the worst position from a psychological viewpoint. Everyone wants your seat.

Even the slightest hint of failure in your head will turn out to be a much fiercer opponent than any mere mortal.

Every athlete who has ever walked in the footsteps of the Olympic greats know what it takes to be there. Each acknowledges years of emotional and physical sacrifice invested to make their dream a reality.

Thus over the course of mere days, the hopes of well-deserving athletes will be joyfully realized or cruelly dashed.

Heroes will emerge from unknowns and superstars will be humbled.Some will be elated – even surprised – but many more will be disappointed. A few will be devastated.

Such is the price of the pursuit of the Olympic dream.

Even for those who proudly wear their medals, some of these fiercely coveted trinkets will end up in sock drawers rather than display cases. Touched by a pang of sadness, the flags will be ceremoniously folded away and the Olympic flame doused, in the hope of inspiring a future generation to take up the call. Slowly the adrenalin, which once coursed through the veins of those athletes, will diminish – like the crowds that had cheered them on.

As a consequence of so much attention for so long, the ensuing silence will become deafening for many. Reality will set in.

Real life is not like the highs of an Olympics and – with no eventual substitute – elite athletes may struggle for months or years to refocus on their lives. Many high-profile athletes have faced serious depression after retiring and a few have never fully recovered.

So when you find yourself tuning into this Olympic spectacle over the next few days and take in the highlights of the athletes’ performances, you may just catch a glimpse of something more… the moments on the podium with the look of joy in contrast to the bitter disappointment etched into other faces.

The most we can truly appreciate from the comfort of our armchairs are mere fragments of these great athletes – snapshots frozen into the framework of Olympic history.

What will not be so apparent on our TV screens will be the subsequent fallout that these Games will have on those who have competed in them.

Win, lose or draw is little indication of the impact of an Olympic hangover on their future lives but one thing is certain they will be forever changed because of them.

Elaine Tanner is a triple Olympic medalist in the 1968 Games in Mexico. She lives in Ocean Park and shares her Olympic experience at www.questbeyondgold.ca