The highs and lows of the 2012 Olympic ‘crying games’

Story highlights

Tearful displays from athletes prompts nickname "the crying games"

Experts: Crying is a release that represents pressure athletes have been managing for years

Displays indicate society's willingness to share emotions in honest way, therapist says

CNN  — 

Dominican runner Felix Sanchez has been holding back tears throughout the 2012 London Olympics ahead of his chance to claim the gold in memory of his grandmother.

He was the 400-meter hurdles champion in Athens in 2004 but failed to repeat that victory in Beijing in 2008 after learning that his beloved “abuela” had died shortly before his first race. He didn’t advance to the semifinals but resolved to return in four years.

“I kind of made a promise I would win one more championship for her,” Sanchez told CNN. “I was holding a lot of emotions, a lot of tears throughout the week just watching other medal ceremonies prior to the semifinals and prior to the finals, just picturing myself on the medal stand winning gold and how it would feel in that moment.”

When the moment came Tuesday, just after his win was confirmed, he tearfully collapsed on the track, pulling a picture of his grandmother out of his bib. The tears continued on the podium as his country’s anthem played.

Such displays from Sanchez and other athletes, including Kerri Walsh Jennings, Chris Hoy and Ruta Meilutyte to name just a few, have led a few sports columnists to dub this summer’s Olympics “the crying games.”

Mere mortals might find it unnerving to witness such emotional outpour from these superhuman beings, who have spent years learning to manage emotions and maintain discipline. But psychologists, coaches, therapists and image consultants agree that athletes don’t deserve to be lambasted for unleashing the waterworks in moments of success or failure. They’re human, after all, and after years of hard work they’ve earned the right.

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“Crying is an emotional release that represents the uncertainty, pressure and sacrifice that they have been managing for years,” said sports psychologist Leah Lagos, who worked with athletes competing in the London Olympics to develop strategies to reduce anxiety. “Crying is a release that validates all their hard work and training over the years.”

While athletes might demonstrate extraordinary self-control throughout years of training, they experience an out-of-body experience when they win the ultimate prize, said Los Angeles-based image consultant Farrah Parker.

“In the few seconds following a victory, their entire life flashes before their eyes including struggles, excessive training, previous victories, and defeats.”

Crying also sends a positive message to viewers that it’s OK to show emotion within the proper context. These days, most athletes are aware that they’re role models and know that when the world is watching, there’s a time and place to jump up and down joyfully and to pound a wall in anger.

“It all tells us that we as a society are ‘comfortable’ enough with our emotions to share the importance of these lifetime achievements in an honest way,” said Lynda Veto, a cognitive therapist based in Princeton, New Jersey.

An informal review of medal ceremonies by The Wall Street Journal found that, as of Wednesday, about 16% of 129 gold medal winners cried at some point during the ceremony. Among the three countries with the most gold medals at the time, athletes from Great Britain cried the most, with 37.5%, followed by American winners (17%), then China (7%), the paper noted.

If there seems to be more crying than usual this year, as commentators and The Wall Street Journal analysis suggest, it could be because of society’s growing acceptance of men and women expressing emotion, Parker said.

“As society evolves, we recognize the need to be professional yet alive. Displaying emotion at appropriate times no longer equates to an athlete’s inability to ‘make it’ in the real world.”

Or it could just be that the cameras are in their faces at every moment, capturing them in the most vulnerable moments of their lives. The cameras stayed on South Korean fencer Shin A-Lam for more than an hour as she sat on the court, face in her hands amid tearful shudders while judges mulled her coach’s appeal.

Emotional displays aren’t for everyone. Gymnasts Aly Raisman and Catalina Ponor did not betray a single emotion as they awaited the results of an appeal of the beam. When Raisman prevailed, bumping Ponor to third place, Ponor simply walked off the floor, stoically if not somewhat sullen, while Raisman smiled and hugged her coach.

While each athlete has his or her own way of dealing with pressure, emotional displays can endear athletes to viewers – and to potential corporate sponsors, Parker said.

“When an athlete cries at the podium, he or she projects an image that screams ‘I’m human.’ For corporations who seek a ‘just like you’ brand ambassador, then an athlete who expresses emotion may just do the trick.

“While the audience knows that the Olympian reflects athleticism at its finest, the emotion allows the potential consumer to connect with the endorser instead of disconnecting based on the monstrous gaps that separates their athletic abilities.”

Managing emotions is a huge part of sports training on which athletes spend a considerable amount of time, energy and money through a variety of techniques, from yoga and meditation to mindfulness.

Another increasingly popular method known as biofeedback focuses on developing breathing techniques to keep the heart rate down.

The key is for athletes to learn their “optimal state for performance,” or the emotional and mental state that enables the best of their abilities to shine in performance, said mental conditioning coach and former triathlete Chris Janzen, whose practice focuses on unlocking “the clarity, mental strength and emotional endurance” to help athletes maximize their potential.

“Some thrive from pressure and some need to reduce pressure,” Janzen said. “For some, like Usain Bolt, he is very relaxed, jovial and even playful to other athletes and certainly to the camera just moments before the gun goes off. Other athletes will be at their best with more intense focus and a more serious, intimidating approach.”

Managing stress takes a lot of work on top of training to become the fastest hurdler in the world or the best on the beam. When it pays off in the form of victory, it’s an authentic realization of human endeavor and potential, Janzen said, the awesomeness of which just might make you cry.

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“They are not losing control as much as being set free of the box they were in,” Janzen said. “After months and sometimes years of sacrifice and preparation – a level of dedication to one goal that most will never fully appreciate – they can finally let go of all the rules and regiments and embrace that they did it.”

There’s no specific formula that leads to emotional outbursts on the winner’s podium, but being on the world stage can certainly heighten the emotion.

“There’s a connection that you’re representing something bigger than yourself that adds to the experience and the emotions behind it,” said retired gymnast Kirk Mango, a collegiate Division I national champion who has been coaching high school sports for 30 years in Illinois.

“It’s kind of a final release after all those days, months and years of training. It becomes a reality, something that was a dream or maybe something that someone told you wasn’t possible.”

Plus, it all makes for good TV. Longtime producers of sports programs and telecasts are all too familiar with the stock phrases about defensive plays and going out there and giving it your best. They know a good moment when they see it.

“It’s all about looking for the genuine emotion. You can tell when someone’s being real or giving you crocodile tears,” said retired sports anchor Lee Gordon.

“As reporters, we’re always looking for that great moment, and you know when you’ve found someone. There’s only so many of those moments, so if you show real raw true emotion we run with it.”