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Action Replay: Out of the Medals

Mhairi Spence is a modern pentathlete who won in both the individual and team competitions at the 2012 world championships. So at last year’s Olympics she was one of the favourites for the gold medal. But after various mishaps she finished twenty-first and was utterly distraught, saying, ‘I felt it destroyed part of me’ (BBC Online, 25 January). She attempted to ‘disappear’ by going backpacking in Australia.

Of course Spence wasn’t the only ‘failure’, since only one in eight members of the British Olympic team won medals, and plenty of other top performers did not deliver the goods. The drop-out rate among promising athletes is extremely high. For instance, in January Manchester City footballer Michael Johnson was paid off from his contract at the age of 24, five years after being described as a likely future England player. Injuries plus a liking for a night out had undermined his fitness and his attitude, but there was more to it than that. ‘I have been attending the Priory Clinic for a number of years now with regard to my mental health,’ he told the Manchester Evening News (22 January), ‘and would be grateful if I could now be left alone to live the rest of my life.’

This is a rare glimpse into the pressures that are inflicted on top sportspeople. In spite of the potential rewards, it is a tough and very competitive business, and for every success there are plenty of people who don’t quite make it and who then have to live more ‘ordinary’ lives if they can. A few can become millionaires but most do far less well. Stress affects almost everyone under capitalism, including those who flirt with celebrity and have more chances to do well than the rest of us.