Matthew Syed in the Times today. He writes about cyclist and Olympic Gold medalist Victoria Pendleton. She has spoken of the tremendous let-down that follows even world-beating success.
...The Great Britain cycling team have always been up front about their raison d’être: winning Olympic gold is everything, all else is detail.
Pendleton worked harder than ever in 2008, rising early to do the lung-busting cardio work, pumping weights, making sacrifices in her personal and family life, you name it. Her entire being was directed at a few minutes of pedalling around an indoor track in China. That was her destiny and her ambition, her be-all and end-all. That is what it is like — that is what it has to be like — if you are serious about becoming the best. Then, in Beijing, in the theatre of dreams, calamity struck.
Consider her words, as honest as they are perplexed, just a few months after achieving her lifetime ambition. “You have all this build-up for one day, and when it’s over, it’s: ‘Oh, is that it?’ ” she said. “People think it’s hard when you lose. But it’s almost easier to come second because you have something to aim for when you finish. When you win, you suddenly feel lost.”
Steve Peters, the cycling team’s psychiatrist, has said that many other Olympic champions — as well as some among the support teams — have also struggled with depression since Beijing. “This is true not just in cycling but across the sports I’ve worked with,” he said. “A number of people I’ve been in touch with following the Olympics, people who’d succeeded, said the same. They felt quite depressed, almost like a sense of loss.”
Syed's analysis of this common phenomenon?
...We should remember that the human brain is the product of millions of years of natural selection. So-called negative emotions must be seen in this context. They have evolved to help us to deal with specific kinds of opportunities and threats. Anxiety facilitates escape from dangerous situations and helps us to avoid them in the future. Mild depression enables us to disengage from unattainable goals. Humiliation is triggered when we are faced with the threat of losing social status.
Seen in this light, anticlimax makes perfect evolutionary sense. It is the emotional lull that lays the psychological foundations for the next tilt at gold; the melancholy that provides the creative impetus for the next great adventure...
...That is why Pendleton will rediscover her manic hunger; that is what humans do. She will come to forget — indeed, she will have to forget — that winning gold in 2012 will be no less hollow than winning in Beijing. She will forget that sporting fulfilment is elusive, just as the rest of us have forgotten that material fulfilment and status fulfilment are elusive.
We strive for these things even though we know, deep down, that they are trivial. This is the paradox upon which human society — and not just capitalism or the Olympic Games — depends. It is the necessary amnesia.
Or as the teacher said:
2 "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." 3 What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains for ever. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. 7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. 8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. 9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. 11 There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow. 12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 15 What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. 16 I thought to myself, "Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge." 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. 18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief. (Ecclesiastes 1:2-18)