Owner of two Olympic medals in the 800 meter race, runner Joaquim Cruz claims to have inherited the “DNA of persistence” from his mother. Lídia went to battle when she climbed onto a macaw tree in Piauí with her six children and moved to Brasília. Years later, the youngest would become one of the greatest Brazilian athletes of all time, Olympic champion at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and silver medalist in Seoul 1988.
The mid-distance runner’s withdrawals in the same Olympic editions in which he became famous are less remembered. In 1984, exhausted and ill after winning gold, he gave up competing in the 1,500 meter semifinal.
Four years later, his abandonment in the same stage of the same race was caused by a controversial interview. When asked about the doping case of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson in Seoul, Joaquim Cruz did not mince words. He said that other athletes also competed doped and took particular aim at American Florence Griffith-Joyner, questioning her femininity.
The repercussion was tremendous. “I lost my energy. The whole situation caused me shame and loss of concentration. I remember that I went to warm up and I couldn’t find myself. Then I said: ‘I’m not going to take on this challenge'”, recalls Cruz, currently a coach of Paralympic athletes in the United States.
He says that he was overcome by an unknown sensation — and that he didn’t know how to get out of it. “The athlete is superhuman and fragile in the same intensity. That’s why I preferred to stay quiet and isolate myself before competitions, because I knew I was fragile too.”
Cruz recognizes that he had to “give up” in some situations to grow as an athlete and person. And that the act of giving up the 1,500 meters in both Olympics was important in this process.
When recalling how concern about mental health was ignored in sport at the time, the Brazilian cites the case of Portuguese Fernando Mamede. Also in 1984, the then world record holder in the 10,000 meters was treated as hope for a medal for the country, but he already had the burden of failing under pressure. In the final in Los Angeles, Mamede abandoned the contest halfway through, without explanation, and disappeared for 36 hours.
In 2019, he spoke to the Portuguese newspaper Público about how favoritism affected him: “It was the fear of winning, of things going wrong, several fears.” Mamede lamented that at the time, those who sought psychological help were belittled by their colleagues.
Discussions on the topic gained a before and after with the Tokyo Olympics. The main name of the event, held in 2021, gymnast Simone Biles took the world by surprise when she gave up competing in most of the events in which she was the favorite. The reason for giving up: to preserve oneself in a moment of emotional turbulence.
This was not a debate on the agenda for most people. Taiwanese-American writer Anelise Chen, who in 2017 published the book “So Many Olympic Exertions”, can be seen as an exception. The work, translated in Brazil in 2021 with the title “Esforços Olímpicos”, mixes essay and fiction with reflections on failure and brings real examples about the lives of athletes who gave up.
The idea, as Chen tells Sheet, was to understand why society hates quitters and values those who have “willpower”. The author reports that, during her research, she came across cases in which athletes who gave up made a gesture towards life and cases in which those who did not give up made a gesture towards self-destruction.
“I talk about two Japanese marathon runners. One didn’t finish the race, but returned to Japan to start a family and live a peaceful life; the other finished the race and even won the bronze medal, but was so ashamed of his ‘failure’ that , several years later, while training for another edition of the Olympics, he ended up committing suicide”, he states.
When he saw the debate surrounding Biles in Japan — and noted that to some extent the gymnast was celebrated for quitting —, Chen thought the book might have a different ending if it were written after 2021. “After athletes quit, it’s a kind of immediate death. We just stopped talking about them. Celebrating someone for giving up didn’t exist when I was writing the book.”
For psychologist and professor at USP (University of São Paulo) Katia Rubio, specialized in Olympic sports, the impact of Biles’ attitude is due to the affirmation of “no” in a career made up of “eternal yeses” that athletes often repeat to coaches , sponsors and sports entities.
When Biles pointed out that her colleagues need to protect themselves and not just do what the world wants them to do, Chen thought it was incredible — and at the same time common sense. “It’s so sad that she had to say that, and even sadder that this comment is controversial.”
Katia points out an explanation for why giving up continues to be taboo in the industry. “As in sport there is this intense narrative of overcoming the opponent, of overcoming difficulties, all athletes are expected to have this profile. And not everyone does, even those who reach the Olympic level.”
In the case of a serious injury, the body itself can warn that it is time to give up. However, when the athlete is faced with emotional or social difficulties, taking this step can be more difficult.
“It’s one thing for you to change clubs. It’s another thing for you to say ‘I can’t compete anymore, I can’t train anymore’. This is a moment of extreme transformation for the athlete, because he has to seek completely different directions. He has to die for this identity and be reborn into another”, says the teacher.
In 2023, two years after experiencing the most shocking withdrawal ever seen in sport, Simone Biles returned to competing and won five medals at the World Championships. The much-celebrated return brought new questions to Anelise Chen.
“I wonder how the story would change if she gave up and never came back to gymnastics. Or if she came back but couldn’t reach her previous level. I wonder if we would still celebrate her in the same way. I don’t think so. I think we just stayed interested because she managed to come back and be even better than before”, concludes the writer.