Is it all about medals? Meaning and purpose in elite sport through the eyes of Olympic athletes

Keywords: meaning, purpose, post-Olympics, existential psychology, athlete well-being


Recently, (Olympic) athletes’ mental health and well-being have become the hot topic in sport psychology. Empirical evidence on athletes’ poor mental health and reduced well-being in the context of the Olympic Games (Küttel & Larsen, 2020; Reardon et al., 2019) is complemented by anecdotal accounts of famous competitors (e.g., multiple Olympic medalist Simone Biles at the Tokyo 2022 Olympic Games). While the recognition that these topics need to be addressed is shared within the wider sport psychology community, the growing body of research has led to the adoption of diverse theoretical perspectives on mental health and well-being in elite sport (Lundqvist & Andersson, 2021).

Surprisingly, a “flagship indicator of well-being” (Steger et al., 2013), namely meaning in life, has thus far escaped scholarly attention in the context of elite sport to a large extent (Luzzeri & Chow, 2020). This gap in knowledge is unfortunate, since athletes seem to become attuned to fundamental questions such as meaning and purpose in sport and life more broadly at critical moments in their career (Ronkainen & Nesti, 2019). One potentially critical moment when athletes talk about feeling lost and void and lacking a sense of direction is encountered upon the return from the Olympic Games, during the post-Olympic phase. Even though existential themes of meaning and purpose have been discussed by scholars and addressed by practitioners within the area of sport psychology (Nesti, 2004; Porter et al., 2021), a more nuanced understanding of how Olympic athletes define meaning and purpose in their sport and life more broadly is missing to date. The study therefore seeks to examine empirically how Olympic athletes experience meaning and purpose by addressing these themes during the post-Olympic phase. To this end, semi-structured interviews with 13 international Olympic athletes were conducted online after their participation at the Beijing Winter Games 2022. Interviews lasted 55 minutes on average and were thematically analysed. The presentation will offer preliminary results of the analysis and elucidate, for example, on how the Olympians perceive goals as subordinate to their personal meaning and purpose in sport. Athletes in the study varied in the degree to which they engaged in various and diverse sources of meaning. This enabled some to realise multiple identities (Thoits, 2003) and to story themselves multidimensionally, while others drew exclusively on achievement-oriented types of meaning and performance-based narratives (Douglas & Carless, 2015). Critical moments in participants’ careers (e.g., injury, the pandemic, previous post-Olympic phases, and medaling at the Olympic Games) led to an existential crisis in some cases, resulting in deeper reflections on the relationship they hold with their sport. By providing insights into the lived experience of meaning and purpose in (Olympic) athletes’ lives, the study seeks to contribute fruitful ideas on how to promote athletes’ well-being and mental health in high performance contexts. Ultimately, a more layered understanding of the concept of (existential) meaning and purpose can serve to inform the applied practice in sport psychology.


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How to Cite
Oblinger-Peters, V., Henriksen, K., & Ronkainen, N. J. (2023). Is it all about medals? Meaning and purpose in elite sport through the eyes of Olympic athletes. Current Issues in Sport Science (CISS), 8(2), 076.