Competing at the Olympic level takes an intense physical and mental toll on athletes, and training at an elite level comes with heightened risks of injuries and increased pressure to perform. This has been evidenced by high profile athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka publicizing their decisions to take a step back from elite competition in response to perceived pressures. Elite athletes may also experience depression and other mental health challenges when retiring from their sports. The International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) recently recognized the risks facing elite athletes, making formal statement regarding mental health in 2019. The IOC has also established a Mental Health Working Group to explore tools for assessing and recognizing athletes at risk of experiencing mental health symptoms and disorders.
Because elite athletes often begin training at a very young age, they are also vulnerable to harassment and abuse by coaches and support staff. This abuse could take the form of overly strenuous training, demands that athletes restrict their diets, or, in the extreme, direct physical abuse such as the case involving women’s gymnastics physician Larry Nassar. The IOC has stated that athletes have a right to engage in “safe sport,” but it has also recognized that organizations may turn a blind eye to reports of abuse out of fear of reputational damage.
The challenge the IOC faces is not whether the wellbeing of Olympic athletes needs to be protected, but what role an international organization should have in providing that protection. For example, should the IOC’s influence be limited to the duration of the Olympic games, or should it extend further? How and to what extent should the IOC partner with national organizing bodies on this issue?
IOC Consensus Statement: Mental Health in Elite Athletes:
IOC Consensus Statement: harassment and abuse (non-accidental violence) in sport:
IOC Sport Mental Health Assessment Tool 1 and Sport Mental Health Recognition Tool 1:
IOC Framework for Safeguarding Athletes and Other Participants from Harassment and Abuse in Sport: