FEAR AND GAMES Pressure to perform mounts at the Olympics


Barcelona, Spain -- At the 1992 Summer Olympics, there is a psychologist who makes house calls.

That's all you need to know about the pressure, fear and stress American athletes face in their quest for gold.

"Athletes are people first," said Dr. Jerry May, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee's sports psychology committee. "We know the public is watching them more than at any time in the past. They're competing not just in front of thousands of spectators, but billions of people. That's pressure."

These Olympics have been defined more by failure than success. For every Dream Team, there are dozens of stories of Olympic nightmares, of athletes who buckle under the stress of performing on a world stage.

Teen-age gymnast Kim Zmeskal, expected to challenge for the all-around women's gold, tumbled under a weight of expectations after a long, pre-Olympic publicity and training campaign. By the end of her week, she was falling on her behind, and her coach, Bela Karolyi, was saying "she lacked the heart" to fight for a gold.

Leroy Burrell, favored in the men's 100-meter --, had one false start and then turned into a bundle of wasted nervous energy, incapable of finishing higher than fifth.

"I was afraid," he said. "I should have dealt with it better."

Denise Parker, a 17-year-old archer, lost a chance for a medal when her final arrow shot wobbled wide of the mark in an elimination match with Natalia Valeeva of the Unified Team. Ms. Parker, an all-state high school basketball player from Utah, was asked if sinking a last-second free-throw compared with shooting a final arrow on a range in a foreign country.

"Hitting a free throw was in a regional game," she said. "This is the Olympics. And I just blew it."

To most Americans, the Olympics are an excuse for a great television miniseries. But to the athletes, this is a once-every-four-years event that brings the world's greatest performers together for 16 days of fun, games and fear.

The pressure to be the best, to perform in a critical situation, haunts them.

"This is a big circus," said Mike Barrowman, of Potomac, the gold medalist in the 200-meter breast stroke.

At the 1988 Games, Mr. Barrowman went to Seoul, South Korea, as the world-record holder and gold-medal favorite. But he faded to fourth in the final, and vowed to shut off all distractions if he ever reached another Olympics.

"Here, I was ready for a typhoon to hit in Lane 8," he said. "It didn't make any difference. You go into the Olympic Games as a reigning Olympic champion or a world champion, and you are expected to win. You've got to be able to control that and conquer your fear."

Often, the athletes will turn to outside help to quell internal emotions. That's where Dr. May, a clinical psychologist at the University of Nevada-Reno, comes in. He doesn't carry a couch around the athlete's village. Instead, he wears a beeper on his belt and a smile on his face.

The list of Olympians he has advised over the last 15 years would read like a who's-who of gold medalists. But Dr. May prefers not to discuss specific names or cases.

Yet he provides a glimpse of his role, as the psychologist on call 24 hours for America's Olympians.

If a team is squabbling in the locker room, unable to resolve a dispute and in need of a mediator, he is there.

If an athlete is heartbroken after a defeat, he is there.

And if a star sustains a career-threatening injury, he is there.

"The biggest difference between the Olympics and any other meet, is that you are being measured against the world and there are all of these people watching," Dr. May said. "The stress these athletes face is the stress some people face on the job. In America, the way the economy is, people are trying to do a good job, and often, they aren't getting the results. It's the same, sometimes, for athletes."

Dr. May said he mostly listens to the problems and complaints of athletes. He often offers solutions as simple as taking a walk, or having an athlete visualize a performance in the heat of a competition.

"You find out what they have done in the past to help them cope," he said. "When we're under stress, we forget our normal coping strategy." The Walkman is apparently the relaxation tool of choice for America's Olympians.

Everywhere you look, Americans are plugged into headphones.

Mark Lenzi, the gold medalist in the 3-meter springboard diving, listens to U2. Swimming triple-medalist Anita Nall, of Towson, prefers Erasure. And yesterday, while diving for a silver in the 10-meter platform, Scott Donie was tuned to the Grateful Dead.

"Like a lot of Olympic athletes, you try to distance yourself from the Olympics," Mr. Donie said. "You have to get in your own little world. I'm totally out of the competition. It's like a meditative state. There is a lot of pressure. A lifetime of working comes down to one moment."

But what if that moment turns into a disaster?

The most vivid image of the women's all-around gymnastics competition was not Tatyana Gutsu of the Unified Team winning the gold, nor Shannon Miller of the United States, winning the silver, it was Ms. Zmeskal, crushed in defeat, weeping.

"Unfortunately, there had to be a loser," said Ms. Miller's coach, Steve Nunno. "And a 16-year-old girl was destroyed."

Dr. May, though, prefers to draw a different lesson from defeat.

"These are competitive people," he said. "They want to win. I'm not sure at this level if anyone loses. We have arbitrarily set 1-2-3 as magic numbers. To say you have lost if you finish sixth, is wrong. You try to defuse the idea of winning and losing. There is not one athlete here on the U.S. team who is a terrible athlete. They are all winners."

But the ones who beat the pressure get the gold.

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