As a cycling community, we have recently come a long way in bettering the conversation around mental health. From prominent figures opening up publicly about their struggles with mental illness to the rise of communities on social media focused on self-care and mutual support, mental health has been one of the loudest discussions in the world of cycling throughout the pandemic.
And as fans of professional cycling, we also need to translate this attention and concern onto how we see the athletes we admire and the kind of support we advocate for them to receive.
As we start to unravel the circumstances that lead to the mental distress of professional athletes, it becomes clear that there is still a lot of work to be done. 34% of elite athletes have depression or anxiety, according to a recent meta-analysis in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Athletes—especially pros—are taught to push through the pain, making it hard to process grief, anxiety, or depression.
For professional women cyclists, in particular, resources are often expected to stretch farther. There can also be different pressures underscored by body image issues, the pressure to start a family, and an unstable financial situation. Unfortunately, these circumstances can have very real consequences.
The consequences of a lack of support
Earlier this fall, the cycling community was deeply saddened by the sudden death of track rider Olivia Podmore. Podmore’s death of a suspected suicide, which followed a concerning social media post in which she spoke about the pressure of high-performance sports, prompted an outpouring of anger among athletes, parents, and coaches. Unfortunately, these testaments describe a system that uses athletes as a means to an end and makes few allowances for their unique needs as individuals—such as the case with Podmore.
Who was Olivia Podmore?
Born in Christchurch, Olivia Podmore started out cycling BMX at age nine and later transitioned to road cycling and then to track cycling. In 2015, she moved to Cambridge in Waikato to train with the national cycling team. That year, Podmore won silver alongside Emma Cumming in the team sprint and bronze in the time trial at the Junior Track World Championships in Astana.
Podmore represented New Zealand at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and several other World Championships and major events. She had qualified for the recent Olympic Games but was not selected and did not compete in Tokyo, under a shadow of controversy.
The impact of dashed expectations
Police did not confirm Podmore’s cause of death but, according to Reuters, friends and sports officials said her passing raised concerns about her mental health. The New Zealand Herald noted Podmore had written about the challenges of life as an elite athlete in an Instagram post that was later deleted.
“Sport is an amazing outlet for so many people. It’s a struggle, it’s a fight, but it’s so joyous. The feeling when you win is unlike any other, but the feeling when you lose, when you don’t get selected even when you qualify, when [you’re] injured, when you don’t meet society’s expectations such [as] owning a house, marriage, kids, all because [you’re] trying to give everything to your sport, is also unlike any other,” she reportedly wrote.
As friends and supporters voiced an outpouring of shock about Podmore’s passing, Cycling NZ and Sport NZ announced it was commissioning an independent inquiry into Podmore’s death. Part of the outside pressure was also due to the fact that this was not the first time the Cycling NZ programme had come under scrutiny.
Words can’t express how saddened we are to hear of the sudden death of Rio 2016 Olympian, Olivia Podmore.
— UCI Track Cycling (@UCI_Track) August 9, 2021
As reported by the New Zealand outlet Stuff—in 2018, former Solicitor General Mike Heron was brought in to review Cycling NZ following allegations of bullying, intimidation, and inappropriate personal relationships. Central to the investigation was the treatment of Podmore, whom Heron found had been pressured to “give a false account” to protect a coach and another athlete who were allegedly involved in an intimate relationship.
Naturally, having to deal with the pressure of being a professional athlete in addition to being forced into complicity with those in power would take a toll on anyone. Unfortunately, it took a tragedy for the organisation to commit to looking into the complex issues surrounding athlete welfare and the pressure to perform. They have stated that they will conduct a review of its mental health support for athletes. HPSNZ Chief Executive Raelene Castle said that Podmore’s death had raised serious questions about athlete wellbeing.
“Olivia’s death has focused our attention once more on the complex issues surrounding athlete welfare and wellbeing, issues that the system has grappled with across a number of years,” she said.
We at Cycling New Zealand are deeply saddened with the sudden loss of our young cyclist Olivia Podmore.
Be kind to each other and take care of one another ❤️https://t.co/bN1RfXen1J
— Cycling New Zealand (@CyclingNZL) August 10, 2021
Why we need to remember these names
Although we tend to focus on the winners and think of our athletic heroes as lucky and admired celebrities, it is crucial to be mindful of the fact that the rapid increase in the demands of life as a professional cyclist—from weight obsession to incredibly demanding training schedules—puts tremendous pressure on riders.
Like many top-tier athletes, pro cyclists are often pressured to achieve a level of excellence rarely expected for the rest of us. Of course, being able to withstand intense pressure is a part of what makes these individuals exceptional. Nevertheless, if we are going to continue expecting them to perform at an increasingly high level, we need to insist that the system within which they operate provides better resources.
There are organisations out there, like The Cyclists’ Alliance, that are doing great work to advocate for the overall wellbeing of riders. Still, it is essential that this discussion continues to be top of mind and that fans of the sport never forget what is at stake for the athletes they love cheering for. There is often a very thin line between a manageable amount of competitive stress and the kind of pressure that becomes too much to bear. Cycling can be an excellent tool for managing mental health for many of us. Let’s help make that the case for professional riders too!