Rio pain for those who missed out.


Photo: the Elias Anton as Danny Kelly in the ABC adaptation of Barracuda

With the Olympics about to start, there is very little written about the group of elite athletes out there who strove to be in Rio and didn’t make it. In most cases, these athletes trained with and beat the Olympians you will see, many times. They went through the hard graft, the tears and the joy that comes with following the dream of competing at the Olympics. They reached that top 0.1% of the world’s athletic population but they will be watching the Olympics from their armchairs.

The lucky ones will feel like they have been beaten fair and square. Some will feel like they have been screwed over (rightly so in some cases) by coaches and selectors and that they should be in Rio. Some will have their crowning moment stolen through injury. Knowing they were qualified and good enough to go yet they will watch from the sofa or the local pub.

Some of the best in the world will be left at home because only one person per country is allowed compete in their event. They are marginally second in their country but good enough for a medal at the Olympics. This has happened to an Australian athlete this year.

Whatever the case, the Olympic Games we are about to enjoy and celebrate will be a painful experience for these amazing athletes who just missed out on going. It is these athletes who have pushed the current Olympians to their max in order to get there in the first place. They will be invisible.

While you are watching the Olympics spare a thought for these great athletes who will be watching but also wondering.

A number of years ago I read Barracuda by award winning Australian author, Christos Tsiolkas (now adapted for TV, see trailer below). It tells the tale of young swimmer, Danny Kelly. A child prodigy from a working class background in Melbourne.

Photo: Barracuda Front Cover.

He was aiming high for the Sydney Olympics. He was obsessed and driven as most young athletes are. He broke the world record along the way but didn’t make the team for his home Olympic Games. The inability of Danny and those around him to process the disappointment meant that he sank deeper and deeper into depression.

On the night of the Opening Ceremony, his only way of escape was to drink himself into oblivion. Trying to avoid the nationwide celebrations marking the opening of an event he had programmed himself to compete at from a very young age. He ended up losing the plot on the night and seriously assaulting one of his former swimming team-mates.  He somehow held him partly responsible for missing the Olympics and unleashed all the pain he was suffering inside. He also had the added complexity of secretly being in love with the same guy.

In a nutshell, Danny had no idea how to cope with his disappointment. Those close to him had no idea how to handle it. He felt nobody could possibly understand how he felt. His only way to avoid the Olympics was to subconsciously create a situation (arrest, police, jail) that would direct his pain away from the Olympics onto something much more serious.

Tsiolkas beautifully and accurately captured Danny’s pain of missing out on the Games.

Right now, there are hundreds of people like Danny out there. Dreading the Olympic Games and the pain they promise to bring. A brutal reminder of their “failure” and the lack of appreciation for the incredible level they got to as an athlete.

If you are one of those athletes, it would be wise to create a little plan for yourself for the Olympic period and beyond.

It could be simply finding someone to talk to. Someone who understands your world. An ex-athlete who has been through the same experience perhaps. Spend some time doing stuff you couldn’t do if you were in Rio. Let your family and loved ones know at least a little bit of what is going through your head.

Spend some time getting perspective: you are still an exceptional athlete at a very high level. The Olympics will come and go.

Using extreme self-destructive behaviour (too much alcohol or recreational drugs) might help you temporarily numb the experience but will only make you feel worse and won’t help it go away. It is a false economy and could have consequences that go far beyond sport.

If you know an athlete who is going through this then look out for them. Encourage them seek help if you feel they need it.

Explore our website for articles and stories that will help.

Barracuda Trailer