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Thorpe's plight underlines precarious balance of stardom

Updated: 2014-02-06 08:21
By Agence France-Presse in Sydney ( China Daily)

Once the cheering stops, many top athletes tumble into a pit of drugs and depression

Elite athletes dedicate themselves to being the best.

But once it's over and the buzz of winning is gone, the transition to regular life can be daunting - and in some cases, devastating.

Thorpe's plight underlines precarious balance of stardom

This 2007 file photo shows Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe at a press conference in Melbourne. Thorpe was admitted to rehab for depression after a mixture of drugs left him disoriented on a Sydney street this week. Files / William West / Agence France-Presse

The difficulties they can face in retirement were illustrated this week when Australian swimming great Ian Thorpe was admitted to rehab for depression after a mixture of painkillers and anti-depressants left him disoriented on a Sydney street.

The five-time Olympic gold medalist, one of the world's most recognizable athletes, has been candid about battling the demons of depression and alcohol abuse since he called it quits in 2006.

Thorpe has dabbled in various business ventures and tried university courses, and he launched a failed comeback attempt in 2011. But he has been unable to find a direction to pursue and at age 31 he is struggling to cope.

As fellow former swimming star Kieren Perkins said, after learning of Thorpe's troubles: "There would be many hundreds, if not thousands of athletes that don't have the notoriety who are at any one time contending with the same things."

Andrew Hughes, an expert in sports marketing and branding at the Australian National University, said dealing with the transition is a problem across all sports.

"When they stop, there's no training regime, no fame, no adulation, no adrenaline. It all disappears," he said.

"A lot of athletes have no idea how to cope, and that's why you see some of them wanting to make a comeback. They long for being the best again.

"Nothing in life can replicate it; it is not being replaced by anything as fulfilling or satisfying."

He said administrators need to ensure athletes are encouraged to view achievement not just in sporting terms, and to be equally proud of getting good grades or working in the community.

He added that it is important they start establishing a plan for life after sport as soon as possible, although many do not.

Most sports in Australia run an Athlete Career and Education Program to help prepare for life out of sport, but it doesn't always work out, as evidenced by Thorpe.

Some even drift into crime.

Former Australian swimmer Scott Miller, a silver and bronze medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, narrowly avoided jail last month on drug charges.

Even Thorpe's long-time rival Grant Hackett has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons, trashing his apartment in an alcohol-fueled rampage in 2011 that saw his wife leave him.

It is a problem across all sports, with plenty of high-profile cases, notably former English soccer star Paul Gascoigne's very public struggle with alcohol and mental issues.

Even yachtsmen find life away from the spotlight hard, as noted by former America's Cup winning skipper John Bertrand, who is now president of Swimming Australia.

"When I retired I went through something similar after winning the America's Cup, but nothing as extreme as what we are seeing with Ian," said Bertrand, who skippered Australia II to victory in 1983, ending 132 years of US supremacy.

"That is the big challenge for any person coming from the highest high: to find a new area of endeavor within their life where they can become passionately involved and love what they are doing."

Australian Institute of Sport psychologist Renee Appaneal said it was important to focus on how athletes coped with big career and personal steps in the past.

"Transition out of sport is just another transition in their life and we encourage them to look back at how they have successfully coped with other transitions, such as from junior to senior level, leaving home for training academies," she said.

"It's all about having a development pathway and how they manage that, while helping them deal with stress."

It is also important to have a support network, she said, but conceded this is harder for elite athletes who are the center of attention.

"It is harder for them to find trusted resources and support. This is not unique to sport; it impacts all people in the limelight."

Appaneal said while many sports help athletes prepare for retirement, more could always be done in delivering the strategy and skills to cope, and also in raising public awareness on issues such as depression.