At her Olympics debut in 1984, track-and-field legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee was favored to win gold in the heptathlon but was struggling with her recovery from a recent hamstring injury. Not with the muscle — she’d healed physically — but in her head. She couldn’t stop worrying about the injury recurring. She says a wrap her physiotherapist put on her made it worse because, “In my mind it meant something must be wrong.” Ultimately, she blamed her mental state for causing her to perform below her best abilities, earning silver that year instead of gold. “It caused me to doubt my coaches, doubt myself. No matter how much they were telling me my leg was OK, I just didn’t believe it,” she says. “Every time I got into the event, I’d anticipate a pain that wasn’t there. And in between the events I was supposed to replace my fluids, I was supposed to be eating. But I was so wrapped up in my leg. I didn’t perform well.”
When Joyner-Kersee heard about Simone Biles withdrawing from the women’s gymnastics team final because she wasn’t “in the right headspace,” she felt admiration for her. “She was brave enough to even speak up and not to give in to the pressures of ‘I’m Simone Biles; I’m supposed to do this,’” she says. (Biles later announced she would be returning to the individual final for the balance beam.)
Things were different during Joyner-Kersee’s own career in the Eighties and Nineties, during which she won six medals, including two golds in record-setting heptathlon performances and one gold for long jump. In 1999, she was named “Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century” by Sports Illustrated. “When I was coming up, you said anything about mental health they’d say, ‘Oh you weak, something wrong with you,’” she says. “We [only] talked about our mental health as far as being tough. When everything is going well, you don’t think about the other tools that you need to navigate when things are not going well.”
She urges the public to have empathy for what athletes performing at the elite level go through. “You see the finished product,” she says. “You see you don’t see the pain. You don’t see the tears. Athletes are so vulnerable, and even though people see us as invincible, we’re human, too. You go through your ups and downs, and it’s really spotlighted when you’re on the world stage.”
In an era of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, Joyner-Kersee believes athletes face additional pressure that she didn’t have to contend with, including more press obligations and the constant availability of athletes to their fans (and haters) on social media. “When we were training, we knew after April 15th, our interviews, any magazine covers, you shut it down so you could just really focus,” she says. “And when it comes to social media, I think it’s a wonderful way to be able to have your voice heard. But as much as there are people that celebrate you, there are some real cruel people that say mean things. It’s amazing how we talk about how our focus is on the positive, but it’s that one nasty thing someone says that lingers in your mind.”
She also points to the Covid-19 pandemic as an added stressor for this year’s athletes. “All of a sudden everything is shut down,” she says. “There’s nowhere you can practice and, yes, you’re being creative, but that’s a lot of change that’s going on.” Enough to throw anyone off their game.
Joyner-Kersee hopes Biles’ high-profile choice to withdraw from both the women’s team finals and the all-around competition will continue prompting conversations around mental health that will make a real difference for the next generation of athletes. The great thing about a high-profile event like the Tokyo games, she says, is that they can bring to light issues that happen outside the glow of primetime coverage. “It’s an opportunity to have genuine conversations, and don’t let it die down after the Olympic Games,” she says. “This is something that’s happening in every sport, and we must continue the conversation, but also put the resources behind it so we can help the younger generation of athletes, and not just at the Olympic level.”