What Athletes Need Are Universal Programs

Happy Chanukah everyone! I’m back from my hiatus, during which I wrote 30k words of fiction of which 2k words might be passable. So that was one of the things I was getting up to while taking a wee break from this newsletter. 

We’re now in December, which means it’s time for the end-of-year-best lists. I’m pleased that the two stories I wrote this year for Longreads made it onto their “top 25 most read” list. At number 17 was my essay about discovering that a friend of mine had lied to me and many others about having had cancer. (I wrote a bit of backstory on writing the cancer-faking essay in this newsletter.)  And at number 22 was my story about the activists who are working to end the Olympic Games.

I know that I should come up with some “best of 2020” list of my own, but honestly, it’s hard to think of anything positive in this shitshow of a year even though I know that some great work was produced and that some people accomplished awesome things. But perhaps at a later date I’ll feel inspired to tease out the few good things that have been made and done this year from the mountain of terrible that we’ve all lived through. 

In other news, breaking has officially been included on the roster of sports for the 2024 Olympic Games. Back in late 2018, I published a 7,000-word feature on the dance’s journey to the Olympics, with a special focus on how battles, which historically historically been judged in an almost seat-of-your pants fashion, will be evaluated. 

During my hiatus, I watched a lot of TV, which is not something unique to my time off or to the pandemic in general. I prefer watching TV to doing most things.

One of the things I watched was “The Weight of Gold,” the HBO Sports documentary about athletes and mental health that came out five years ago in July 2020. It featured Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, who was also one of the producers of the project. Since retiring from swimming after the 2016 Games, he has become outspoken about the lack of mental health services available to athletes, especially after they retire from their respective sports. It can be exceedingly difficult for elite athletes to transition into the next phase of their lives especially after they have spent years exclusively focused on one particular goal. This can mean that they never developed hobbies or interests outside of their sport or that their social contacts outside of athletics might be meager. In some cases, it can mean that their education has suffered or been delayed. And in many instances, it means the end of certain material supports such as a living stipend and health insurance. 

The documentary, via interviews with Phelps, figure skaters Sasha Cohen and Gracie Gold, hurdler- turned- bobsledder Lolo Jones, and several others, is well-done, but doesn’t really break any new ground; most of what was said by the athletes has been said by many of them before—Gold, of late, has been very vocal about her mental health struggles while at her figure skating peak. And the relatively short running time—one hour—doesn’t allow the documentary to really get into the issue of athlete suicide, which dominates the second half of the film. They probably needed at least a full hour, if not more, to address that topic.

But wishing that there was more doesn’t mean that what was included wasn’t worthwhile. The athletes and advocates are right that the institutions of sport should do more to support them, physically and psychologically, both during their career and after. Without them, there is no sport to administer. They are the ingredient that makes the whole recipe come together. They are the apple in apple pie. Without the athletes, you just have an administrative framework that crumbles like a buttery, flaky crust. (Why yes, I’ve also been watching a lot of the Great British Baking Show during this pandemic, why do you ask? Also, Paul Hollywood can get it.)

But one of the frustrating things about the documentary and the conversation around this topic in general is the inability to take a step back and look at the bigger picture and see how athletes’ struggles are linked to other, broader struggles.

Katie Uhlaender, an athlete in skeleton, spoke about how she was on tour while her father was undergoing treatment for cancer and how she repeatedly asked if she could go home to be with him after receiving emails from her mother telling her that her father’s health was rapidly declining and that he didn’t have much time left. Her coach told her that she couldn’t go home to be with her father. Tragically, her father passed away while she was abroad competing.

While her job was different from most—diving headfirst down an iced track on what is basically a sled—the fact that she wasn’t given time off to be with a sick loved one is not unique among American workers. Many are not allowed leave to help care for an ailing family member. In that way, Uhlaender, despite her extraordinary athletic gifts, is like millions of other Americans who don’t possess adequate workplace rights and protections.

Jones spoke about how meager her training stipend for the national team was that she had to work at a gym making smoothies. There is nothing wrong with making smoothies as your job, but what Jones was forced to do was to cobble together a living from two low- wage jobs—the smoothie one and the elite athlete one. And probably, even then, she was only just getting by. She also talked about receiving a letter informing her that at the end the month, her health insurance would be terminated because she was no longer on the national team. At this moment of transition out of sports when she needed access to both medical and mental health care, she found herself without those resources, and trying to figure out what comes next. 

(Not all athletes face this predicament, at least as far as material resources are concerned. Someone like Phelps seems to be, if not set for life, then very, very comfortable for the foreseeable future. But this financial security isn’t the result of wages he was paid for his years of training and competing; they come from lucrative endorsement contracts he signed as the Olympian with the most medals in history. Few Olympic athletes can hope to match Phelp’s earning potential. For most, even if they do manage to snag one or two good endorsements, the money won’t end up lasting for very long as short track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno made abundantly clear in the documentary.)

As I watched Jones describe this material reality, my first thought is This is why we need universal healthcare. To be fair, I have this thought a lot such as when I trip over a curb while walking; or when I bump into a door frame; or anytime I drive a car.

We’ve talked a lot about how access to healthcare should have nothing to do with employment status over the last few years (or decades) but I haven’t seen it explicitly discussed much in relation to Olympic athletes or those in the non-revenue generating sports. Their positions are quite precarious similar to many low paid workers in the U.S. and, as Jones’ story illustrates, that precarity can lead to, not only loss of income (or training stipend) but also the loss of their healthcare. And similar to many low wage workers, injury is something that will knock someone off the national team and then off their insurance.   

While we can’t guarantee athletes a permanent position on the national team—there aren’t an infinite number of roster positions and maintaining a spot will have to be performance-based at the end of the day—we should be able to guarantee that if their athletic performance suffers, they don’t end up losing their access to healthcare along with their spot on the squad. 

My argument that universal programs will benefit athletes and address some of the issues they face is not an argument in favor of sports federations and governing bodies abdicating all of their responsibility for athlete well-being. There are sports specific problems that will still need to be addressed by those entities; moreover, as the institutions that directly benefit from the athletes’ labor, they should be obligated to meet the needs of their workforce. 

But universal programs like Medicare for All will address some of the more pressing material concerns of athletes and remove some of the precarity from their lives. It will mean that a bad competitive season won’t be the end of their ability to go to a doctor. 

This is all pretty obvious stuff as far as I’m concerned but it’s important to state it plainly, to recognize that despite the fact that athletes have almost otherworldly physical abilities and talents, their needs and our needs are mostly the same and our struggles are linked. We must be in solidarity with them and they with us. 

A little bit of housekeeping: I’m going to wait until the beginning of January to resume collecting payments from those of you who have subscribed. I want to be certain that I’m back to publishing regularly again before I un-suspend payments. Thank you for all of your patience and understanding.