Olympic athletes like track stars Christian Taylor and Ajee Wilson are dealing with the psychological and physical toll of their goal date being pushed back a year but they are managing to find silver linings
“It is very difficult because I cannot do my job properly,” says Christian Taylor, 29, an American track and field Olympic and world champion.
“It has been over two and a half months now since I put on my spikes and been able to execute one day of proper training.”
Taylor competes in the triple jump and long jump, and pandemic closures have made his track, sandpit, and gym off-limits.
While most Olympic athletes, including Taylor, advocated for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo to be postponed due to COVID-19, they now must deal with the impact.
The struggle for motivation
Many athletes train up to five hours a day, six days a week, and adhere to stringent nutrition programmes leading up to the Games.
Now, they have to adjust to their finish line being pushed back a year — and potentially cancelled entirely if no vaccine is developed, according to the President of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee.
Dr Jack Lesyk, director of the Ohio Centre for Sport Psychology and former president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, says motivation is going to be a challenge for many athletes.
U.S. Olympic middle-distance runner Ajeé Wilson says “training is that much more enjoyable and you’re able to endure that much more pain if you have something tangible that you can aim towards.”
In light of the situation, Wilson initially relaxed her training and gave herself “wiggle room” to adjust, depending on how she feels. Now, with announcements of a potential running season this autumn, Wilson’s training has intensified.
Canadian tennis player and Olympian, Gaby Dabrowski, 28, says her motivation to practice on the court for hours has waned, but now she has the time to rehabilitate rather than push through with injuries as she does normally.
“We’re bred to be resilient.”Gaby Dabrowski
U.S Olympian Taylor says, “When it comes to motivation as an athlete, that light, that fire, does not dwindle because this is what we live for. We train every day in the hopes that we’re going to be ready at a championship…tomorrow may bring an injury; we can get to the competition and become ill. There is always that uncertainty with sports.”
Dr Lesyk says high school and college athletes he’s worked with are currently reducing expectations, not training as hard, and focusing on “maintaining a level of fitness so they can return to the sport without having lost too much during the downtime.”
The difficulties of isolation and silver linings
Dr Lesyk says this is a good time for athletes to focus on experiences in life that they have been missing out on because of the demands of their sport.
Middle-distance runner Wilson says this disruption in her training has made her think about what she wants her life to look like after she’s retired and consider her life outside of track.
She has been inspired to “take charge of [her] life.”
I’ve set up my life in a way that’s very easy and very convenient. My coach is in charge of my training. My agent manages my contracts and appearances. I have a financial adviser for the most part…I’m not as hands-on in my life as I feel I should be, as crazy as that sounds.Ajee Wilson
For many athletes, physical isolation has been a difficult consequence of the pandemic.
Wilson says, “some of the hardest moments have just come from being disconnected like this. Not being able to do simple things like go and hang out with a friend.” Wilson fears for the health and safety of people around her, like her 65-year-old coach who has Parkinson’s.
But she has also managed to find silver linings.
Wilson teared up when she revealed that she and her sisters have become closer. The workouts, birthday celebrations, and talks over FaceTime are the most they’ve connected since they lived together growing up. “That’s really one of the brightest points.”
Taylor has not been able to see friends and family since mid-March; his fiancée is Austrian and has been stuck in Europe because of travel bans, and their plans to get married in October are now up in the air.
“I’ve been very alone for the last few months,” Taylor says.
He says initially, as the pandemic worsened, he stopped watching the news. “I put my head in the sand because I couldn’t take it engulfing me. I was feeling the depression. I was feeling the sadness.”
But he realised “it’s an opportunity to learn and be better in the future.”
“It can get so dark sometimes, I really just have to rely on my faith that it’s all happening for a reason… I’m hoping that we all come out of this and that change happens, that we don’t go back to the way things were,” says Taylor, referring to both the public health issues and racial tensions in the news recently.
Looking beyond the Olympics, he is hopeful the increased attention paid to the news and social media during the pandemic will ensure that important issues like racial inequality will remain in the spotlight rather than “burning and dying”.