Published in Gair Rhydd on 5/12/2011.
What is a professional athlete? Talented? Dedicated? At the peak of physical condition? In truth, an athlete is usually all of the above. However, when asking somebody for their thoughts on some athletes, it wouldn't be long before you were informed that they are overpaid and detached from the real world.
This is the illusion that the media has created over the protagonists in one of the world's most exposed industries. The wealth of athletes at the highest level is undeniable. They have big houses, a multitude of expensive cars and lucrative sponsorship deals. All too easily, however, we forget that these people are just like us. Beneath the public profile, they are still human.
This week, we are left with the most poignant of reminders as to the fragility of any life.
The loss of Gary Speed has left a gaping hole in football. We would be better served not knowing the reasons behind Speed's passing, but the tragic loss of a football manager with some of his greatest achievements still ahead of him provides a stark reminder that success does not breed immunity. In recent times, some of sport's largest names have struggled to fight their demons behind closed doors.
Former heavyweight champion Frank Bruno is a high profile case of depression after a sporting career. In 2003, Bruno was taken from his home under the Mental Health Act, before being sectioned and diagnosed with bipolar. Later, Bruno admitted that his condition had been worsened by cocaine use.
Since his recovery, Bruno has been honest about the cause of his problems: “My trainer, George Francis, once said to me that the hardest fight would be when I retire. I didn’t understand what he meant. But when you’re used to getting up at seven o’clock, going running, to the gym, sparring, doing press conferences, after-parties, retiring is the worst thing that can ever happen to a sportsman.”
This is the key aspect that we may never understand. We have never lived life always striving to achieve our next goal in the public eye and we have never known our lifestyle change entirely overnight in the manner than a retiring athlete would. This lack of empathy was highlighted by The Sun, who ran the headline 'Bonkers Bruno Locked Up', to widespread criticism.
Speed is not the only tragic loss at the hands of depression. In 2009, German goalkeeper Robert Enke, 32, stepped in front of a train having battled depression following the death of his daughter.
The story of Kelly Holmes provides proof, however, that there is a way back. Whilst training for the 2004 Olympics, Holmes suffered from injury problems and became depressed. Due to the doping rules, she was unable to use anti-depressants, turning to self-harm as a form of catharsis. She said: “Everything in my life at the time was wrong. When you’re in it, you don’t see a way out.” Holmes has since admitted to considering suicide before winning two gold medals in Greece.
Marcus Trescothick, Andre Agassi, Robert Enke, John Kirwan, Michael Yardy. The list goes on.
Only a matter of hours before Speed's death, Stan Collymore – himself a long-term sufferer of depression – used his Twitter account to explain how he was feeling during his current bout of depression, one that he described as his worst for six years. The former Liverpool striker wrote: ''If, like me, you have been there many times then you will know this...it's bloody dark but the clouds ALWAYS lift, so do everything you can to help yourself through. Open up to help and the fog will lift. You are not alone. Stan Collymore, depressive and broadcaster.'
Mental illness pays no attention to bank balance or profile. Now, more than ever, we can see that the gulf between sport stars and the ordinary person is not as broad as we think. Fundamentally, we are all the same.