The Walther rifle was lying ice-cold in the safe. Scores of pellet boxes were kept unopened. Abhinav Bindra was feigning sleep when the five a.m. alarm rang for practice. It was an anomalous situation. For 14 years, Bindra had been waking up at three a.m. to practice at his home range if an idea suddenly dawned on him. Now, the shooting range was locked up, indefinitely. When I met him three months after his Beijing triumph, Bindra was sporting a cheerless look on his face. I had thought it was a simple case of motivational problem. I was way off the mark. It was a not-so-simple case of Post-Olympic Depression Syndrome (PODS), as he would later confess in A Shot at History: My Obsessive Journey to Olympic Gold. The struggle to become a champion doesn’t end in 9.67 seconds. The struggle invariably begins the day after.
“He’s in a funny mood these days,” Bindra’s coach Garbriele ‘Gaby’ Buhlmann would tell me that day. “Sometimes he says yes [to shooting] and at the very next moment he’s saying no. He’s changing his mind every five minutes. As far as I can see he is not ready to take up shooting once more.” Every day, since the age of 12, Bindra had woken up to just one objective. He wanted an Olympic medal. He got one. Now what? This question haunts many Olympians after they reach their goals. In short, this is PODS. Variants of “Now what?” pile up as athletes get that nauseating sensation of a thousand bees buzzing in their head.
Few days before I had met Bindra in 2008, he had fallen apart in a hotel room in Bhopal. Oscillating from “euphoria to sadness”, he put his hands on his face and wept. He didn’t recognise this hero that he had become in the eyes of his countrymen after the Olympic triumph. “Now I could sleep late but I didn’t know how to. I was dressed but with nowhere to go,” he wrote in his autobiography. “In my range I found myself lost, my gun I didn’t want to touch. I had gone from 100 per cent obsession to zero obsession, like someone had put a break on my accelerated life.” Pre-Beijing, Buhlmann would yank him out of the shooting range as opposed to other students who would give false excuses to escape training.
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In another part of the world, in Baltimore, around the same time as Bindra was going through his post-Olympic crisis, American swimmer Michael Phelps was having his psychological meltdown. Phelps had returned with eight gold medals from Beijing Olympics. But in subsequent months, when the time came to prepare for London Olympics, he started to shirk. “After Beijing, I mean, there’s countless times where I’ve just wanted to be like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to go to the pool every day,’” Phelps told a TV channel this year. His day, post-Beijing, began at 11:00 o’ clock in the afternoon. Most of the time was spent indoors playing video games. Another thing which caught his fancy was Marijuana. He was clicked sucking on a bong. Phelps went through a “huge depression phase” where he kept asking himself that patent PODS question: “What am I doing?” For substance abuse, Phelps was suspended from competing for three months by USA Swimming in 2009. According to a research published in a website concerning the 1982 Czech Olympians, eight in ten “suffered serious substance abuse and emotional problems” while trying to readjust themselves “on their road back to regular life” post the massive high of Olympics. In another research conducted by Tufts University in the US, researchers found that depression is directly correlated with inactivity. Olympians are known to go off their rigorous training schedule after the Olympics. This creates a kind of withdrawal symptom associated with drug-addicts.
It took nearly eight months after the 2008 Olympics for Phelps to get back to the pool. Bindra, on the other hand, got back to his art after a year of “drifting”. Yet, Phelps would frequently skip practice, take off on a road trip to Las Vegas on a whim with his friends or play golf while his coach Bob Bowman would be waiting to put him through a special practice before the Nationals. As a teenager, for six consecutive years, Phelps never missed a single day of training. “I wasn’t in tune to everything that was going on in the pool,” was how Phelps summed up his post-Olympic blues.
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PODS doesn’t necessarily wait to strike after the Olympics. It often comes sooner — at times, in the middle of the race. Suzy Favor Hamilton was the favourite to win the women’s 1500m at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The American had clocked the fastest time in the world three-months back to make a strong case. On the starting line, though, she had trouble keeping her equanimity. She started to think about her best friend Mary, dying of cancer; her parents coming to terms with her brother’s suicide the year before; and her sponsors who had spent a million dollars on an advertisement featuring her right before the event. She became afraid of letting these people down.
Yet, as the gun fired, she took off like a champ. For three rounds she fronted the group. And then, her mind collapsed. With 100m remaining, two runners passed her. In her mind, she saw no one else as the winner. And then two others leapfrogged. “And in that split second I told myself to just fall on purpose, and I fell really good, like I tripped or something,” said Hamilton in Learning to Lose: An Olympic Confessional, a BBC documentary. She pulled out of the next 2004 Athens Olympics at the last minute. And in 2005, suffering from depression, contemplated suicide.
Peter Haberl, a senior psychologist with Team USA for the Olympics, will be working with athletes who’ve suffered “crushing defeats” like Hamilton at the London Olympics. “To a certain extent it can be like stages of grieving,” Haberl told a website. “In that moment it is important to be present with an athlete and to help them understand that the moment, though it is extremely painful, will pass.”
Haberl often uses humour to drive out negativity. An athlete’s sob story usually starts with a cliché: “I let my country down.” Haberl makes them believe that they’re overestimating themselves. Yes you lost but when you returned home, Haberl asks, were all the flags at half mast, was the country in mourning, and did they close the schools?
“You’re probably asking yourself if such a disorder [PODS] even exists or if we’re just trying to be funny,” writes judoka Taraje Williams-Murray in his blog. Murray-Williams took a year to recover from his Beijing Olympic loss. And he took another year to figure out his future goal. “Everything seems sickeningly mundane. Ordinary life is a lot different than viewing the world from the lofty vantage point of ‘Mount Olympics’. Back out here in the real world, nothing feels like it can ever go back to normal.” But it does. And it did for Bindra and Phelps. Again they found obsession, again normalcy.