January 26th was Bell Let’s Talk day, focussing on mental well-being by raising awareness and reducing stigma surrounding mental health issues in Canada, bringing a long-hidden topic into the mainstream.
This got me thinking about one issue that has been nagging me for the past couple of years – the G.O.A.T.
For the uninitiated, the ‘G.O.A.T.’ stands for ‘The Greatest Of All Time’, especially in athletic endeavours. If you are considered the fastest, the most winningest, or the most prolific scorer, you might be anointed the G.O.A.T. by media and scores of adoring fans.
Now, if you are in midlife (or later) and have retired from professional athletic competition, and you remain the fastest, the most winningest, or the most prolific scorer of all time, you probably deserve the title of the G.O.A.T. (think Wayne Gretzky in hockey or Tiger Woods in golf, but only one of the problems with the G.O.A.T is that the title is purely subjective); and you can handle it because you are older, you have a lifetime of experiences, you have built resilience through hard times, and you have gained that all-important perspective about who you really are in this world. You have probably come to realize that being a good person in all of life is more important than any athletic accomplishment. And you are in touch with your own mortality, recognizing that accolades are just passing moments in the long haul of life. You accept that, as with life, the adoration and your athletic identity passes.
For others who are still competing and much younger, however, I expect the G.O.A.T. title can be more damaging.
Elite athletic life is difficult enough for athletes who will never be of G.O.A.T. status. In Athletes for Hope (athletesforhope.org), “Mental Health and Athletes”, it is noted that 1 in 5 of the general population in the United States experiences some form of mental illness (some 20%) but “data shows that up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression, or anxiety”. In Canada, the University of Toronto, in an article ‘Elite athletes more likely to experience mental health disorders: U of T study’ reveals that 41.4% of athletes on the Canadian national team, preparing for the 2020 Olympics, “met the cut-off criteria as proposed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) for depression, anxiety and/or eating disorder”. Health.clevelandclinic.org, in an article 'Athletes and Mental Health: Breaking the Stigma', suggests that key stress factors include the pressures of competition, the aggressive nature of the sports arena, a "perfectionist mindset", and lack of personal balance. Note that the 35% and the 41.4% related to “elite athletes”, not to the designated “G.O.A.T’s” who are even more 'elite' than the elite. I wonder how many times higher it is for them?
I imagine a whole different level of stress is introduced when the title of G.O.A.T. is bestowed on someone who is barely 20 years of age, is still competing, and has hardly experienced life outside their playing field (think of athletes such as gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka who literally had to take a mental health break). I would hazard a guess that top level athletes at that age have few decisions to make on their own as, if they are truly at the very top level, they already have a stable of ‘handlers’, a strict regimen of training, eating, and sleeping, and someone telling them where to be and when. Throw into this mix exorbitant amounts of money which is managed by somebody else, front page exposure in social media which talks you up (and runs you down ), pressure from sponsors, an adoring fan base, all the privileges that wealth brings, never being able to go out in public with anonymity, and the emotional weight of the nation riding on your shoulders. I suspect that athletes at the very top are even more "perfectionist" which would make the highs and the lows immense and intense. You win in the spotlight but you also lose in the spotlight. The better you are, the brighter the glare. A totally unrealistic life. Not at all conducive to emotional wellness. As the old slang saying goes, “What could possibly go wrong (for a 20 year old)?" And the world wondered why young athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka took a break to look after their mental health.
You might say that they chose this life. Yes, they did – and they didn’t. They wanted to do something they love, appreciate their position, and probably do like attention. But the G.O.A.T.’s are human, too. Even if they love the money and fandom, both wear thin, and it is hard to live up to all of those expectations of fame, all of the time, especially if you are barely into adulthood. I imagine at some point they'd just like to sit in a local cafe with a 3,000 calorie triple chocolate/cream/caffeine beverage.
It's all metaphoric, in my opinion, for the greater inequalities in the world. A large part of the problem lies with our society where there appears to be endless amounts of money to hand out to the few at the top (for example, Naomi Osaka is estimated to be worth $60 million US dollars in tennis winnings and endorsements at 24 years of age according to firstsportz.com which is nothing compared to top earning tennis player Novak Djokovic who is said to be worth $220 million US dollars according to marca.com), where the media are quick to place certain athletes on the highest pedestal possible and critique every move, and where adoring fans hero-worship those at the very top. All kinds of layers of inequalities.
We need to dial back, way back. Spread the money around. There are millions of people in the world who need it. Stop making athletes out to be more than human. And maybe don't anoint someone the G.O.A.T. until they are through their career and are truly the Greatest Of All Time - when they can handle it.
So, there are problems for the G.O.A.T. at the top of the mountain.
Meantime, if you are just a regular member of society (remember, we all have our pressures), or an elite athlete, or an actual G.O.A.T., take care of your mental health during January and every day. Like Bell says, "Let's talk."
(And, by the way, YOU are the G.O.A.T. in a good way to somebody in your little circle, and that is enough.)