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Heroes in Hell: Olympic gold medallists' lives falling apart

Posted by: Neil Mitchell | 19 November, 2012 - 9:12 AM
Matthew Mitcham, a hero in hell. (Photo: Adam Pretty/Getty)

You have to wonder about our sports system. We worship our athletes and put them on pedestal.

We celebrate them, call them heroes, train them and give them parades when they succeed. But it is clear today we don’t care for them and support them in the way we should.

Diver Matthew Mitcham, the man who won a gold medal in Beijing, who is bright, lively and entertaining, is revealed as a disturbed man. He has admitted in a book he has written that he had a problem with one of the most addictive and illegal drugs: Crystal Meth.

He smoked it regularly; he would sit in the car and smoke it, sometimes during a break in training.

It had hold of him and it is desperately addictive. He has also suffered deep clinical depression and had been self-harming; slashing and himself and mutilating himself.

This man has been hospitalised, treated or anti-depressants, and smoking a highly-dangerous drug. And all this when he was an elite athlete – the cream of the country, top in the world, trained and feted in Australia.

One basic question here: Why did nobody know? Why was there nobody in this massive Olympic machine who said: ‘Hang on, this bloke has a problem.’

How did he hide it? Why was there no regular support system where this came out?

The same thing happened with Ian Thorpe. He was clinically depressed and told few people. He was abusing alcohol, a drunk.

So here we have two of our best athletes, Olympic gold medallists, with their lives falling apart at the same time they were national heroes. Nobody knew and nobody did anything.

As an employer, if this was one of my staff, I would feel I had failed. I would feel I should have done something.

Somehow here, Australia has failed. The system should have picked this up. It did not, it failed.

Is it the nature of the driven people who enter the sport and make it to the top? Is it the sport that drives them to these levels of depression and desperation? Is it the chicken or the egg? Is it the nature of the person who becomes the elite athlete? Or is it being an elite athlete that drives them to it?

Matthew Mitcham is still diving. He will not be punished by Olympic officials, but seriously you also have to ask: Why did drug testing not turn this up?

And if it has happened in these cases, Thorpe, Mitcham and Chantelle Newbery, an Athens diving gold medallist who was hospitalised for depression as well, you gave to ask how many of our so-called young sports heroes have desperately dark and serious problems underneath all those medals.

Heroes in Hell.

LISTEN: Olympian Matthew Welsh speaks with Neil Mitchell:

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Blog comments Your Say

  • Why did nobody know about this prior to him admitting it? Because fame influences things, often in bizarre ways. By his own (Mitcham) admission, he did everything to lie to the people around him about his habit. Nobody forced him to do meth. It's just another sad example of somebody who let the fame go to his head. I think his career as an athlete is over personally. He crashed and bombed at the most recent Olympics. If he spent as much time being honest instead of partying, his head would be in a better place. But its all very familiar, admit your demons in a book deal and then be celebrated for "being honest" - but I ask, if he was so honest, then why not come out and say so before now? Because like all drug users, they lie. To hide their habit.

    Greg Monday 26 November, 2012 - 4:32 AM
  • You all are just jealous that you were never a high performance athlete!
    Being a professional athlete is a job just like yours that requires hard work on a daily basis. No one is perfect and pressure can be hard to handle. So for those of you with mean comments, you should be ashamed.

    butterfly Wednesday 21 November, 2012 - 12:18 AM
  • Neil, a Hero to me is somebody that risks his life to save others, not somebody that can run or swim faster than anybody else.

    gez Tuesday 20 November, 2012 - 3:52 AM
  • Few people realise the stresses that the best athletes are put under to 'achieve'; not only from external sources but most importantly, from the self drive that is needed to succeed, and the resultant devastating sense of failure when their performance is less than perfect.

    Marc Murrey Monday 19 November, 2012 - 8:22 PM
  • Take his medals off him.

    Milton Monday 19 November, 2012 - 2:24 PM
  • The word hero dose not fit any sports person the media gets carried away with the over use of the hero word>.

    Steve Monday 19 November, 2012 - 1:43 PM

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