Uncertainty over the status of the Tokyo Olympics has contributed to a surge in the number of elite athletes identifying mental health concerns, according to the founder of the charity Sporting Minds.
Officials insist the rescheduled Games will still take place this summer despite the Japanese capital being plunged into a state of emergency on Thursday due to a further increase in coronavirus cases.
The number of referrals made by Sporting Minds, which funds mental health support for young sports people, to its healthcare provider BUPA, has fluctuated broadly in line with the coronavirus waves.
And the charity’s founder Callum Lea said it is no surprise that prospective Olympians are increasingly among those seeking support and advice given the impact of the uncertainty on their immediate career ambitions.
Lea, a former academy cricketer with Warwickshire, told the PA news agency: “2020 has been a year in which athletes have had to think about mental health a lot more, because the challenges they have been facing have been so up front.
“We have seen quite a big spike in referrals. We saw quite a big spike in March and April when the first lockdown was in full force, and we’ve seen another spike in the past month.
“For Olympic athletes their opportunity comes around once every four years and they could be at the peak of their careers, and a lot of them will know that this is their only chance, or their last chance.
“It is always different for every individual – you have some who will be able to cope with it OK and others who are extremely worried and will start to think that this is the opportunity they have built towards their whole life, and it is slowly starting to slip away.”
The International Olympic Committee and Tokyo officials have repeatedly attempted to ease concerns over the rearranged Games, despite the escalating coronavirus situation worldwide.
Tokyo organisers maintained that the declaration of the state of emergency – in reality, a much softer lockdown than that currently being experienced in the UK – “offers an opportunity for Tokyo 2020 to plan for a safe and secure Games this summer”.
The measures include limited opening hours for offices, bars and restaurants and restrictions on some events, although schools will be allowed to remain open.
That confidence is broadly shared among British officials, with one performance director telling the PA news agency this week that it would take a “nuclear bomb” before the Games is postponed for a second time.
The increased availability of a vaccine has also raised hopes, although officials have been anxious to distance themselves from suggestions from the Canadian IOC member Dick Pound that athletes be prioritised in order to ensure minimum disruption to the Games.
In response to Pound’s comments, IOC president Thomas Bach repeated his previous assertion that whilst vaccinations for athletes would be pursued in time, they will not form a mandatory requirement for participation in the Games.
But issues relating to a curtailing of training and competition opportunities due to the renewed lockdown rules are other elements that are contributing to anxiety among some athletes.
Lea added: “It’s great as an athlete when you’ve got loads of things you can control – your training, your diet, your recovery.
“But with something like this it’s not in the athletes’ control whatsoever. They are completely in the dark and there’s nothing they are able to do about it other than continue training and just hope for some positive news.”
:: Sporting Minds UK is a registered charity that provides and promotes mental health support in young sports people. To access one-to-one support, get involved or donate go to: www.sportingmindsuk.org