Tokyo Olympics: Togo's Benjamin Boukpeti insists 'mental health as important as physical wellbeing'

9 months ago 3557
Togolese canoeist Benjamin Boukpeti in action at the 2008 Beijing OlympicsTogolese canoeist Benjamin Boukpeti won a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Former Togolese Olympic medallist Benjamin Boukpeti says mental health issues must be treated with the same importance as physical injuries.

The 39-year-old won Togo's first, and so far only, Olympic medal when he claimed bronze in the men's kayak canoe slalom at the 2008 Games in Beijing.

The France-born Boukpeti is now an athletes representative with the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (Anoca) and says mental health is one of the key areas they are working on.

He was talking after US gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from some of her events in order to prioritise her mental health.

"We (Anoca) have recognised for a long time that it (mental health) was very important and that athletes are not supported enough," he told BBC Sport Africa.

"Today we are more able to understand how we are physically, but mentally there is still a lot of work to do.

"For me that news (of Simone Biles having to withdraw due to mental health) is tragic - but just as you would treat an injury to an elbow or your hand, this is an injury that needs to be treated as well."

Boukpeti says the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been leading the way on the subject of mental health while he and Anoca are trying raise awareness around the issue.

"We (Anoca) are made aware of the main information and scientific studies about the situation, and then we are able to share real stories and provide examples of what an athlete is going through and what has happened," he explained.

"We need more awareness, and help for athletes, coaches, and staff to make sure that their behaviour is correct to make sure that mental health is good.

"There is also the issue of doping and sexual aggression, so there are lots of things to manage."

Personal experience

Togolese canoeist Benjamin Boukpeti kisses the bronze medal he won at the 2008 Beijing OlympicsTogolese canoeist Benjamin Boukpeti kisses the bronze medal he won at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

He added that his own mental health was something that he took great care of during his own career.

"The first step for me was to be prepared mentally with regards to my sport, to make sure I was in a position to be at my best on the good day, especially for Olympics, because there is only one day like that every four years," he explained.

"But it's a different thing to get prepared about life (away from sport) - all the media, the pressure from the sponsors, or from the people of the country you are representing.

"I was very lucky because my entourage, my coach, were very clever about it, so it was OK to manage.

"But if I remember, just thinking about going back to Togo after winning the Olympic medal, I took a long time to prepare how I would talk to the media, how I would behave because I knew that every move could be an influence and make a difference."

He also believes that the global coronavirus pandemic has created more mental health issues over the last 18 months.

"The pandemic and all the restrictions has had a huge impact on preparations and on our lives," he continued.

"Sportspeople are still humans and not different from other people. It's very stressful to prepare for Olympics, and it's much more so in these conditions.

"You are not sure if you can travel, you are not sure if you or your family are going to get Covid."

He is hopeful that as more athletes and people in general talk about the problems surrounding mental health issues things can improve.

Togolese canoeist Benjamin Boukpeti celebrates his bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing OlympicsTogolese canoeist Benjamin Boukpeti celebrates his bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

"Maybe it's social media, maybe it's the pandemic, but we can now see that some star athletes suffer from it (mental health issues), that they are also struggling with these issues and maybe that's why we are talking more about it," he pointed out.

"But actually, it's not something new, it is just something we are more able to talk about today, because we are also better at seeing and recognising the situation."

Social media

Boukpeti says athletes need to be more aware of the pitfalls that come with using social media.

"With social media we are not able to control and drive what is happening," he pointed out.

"With the media you have a little bit of control and the same with your sponsors, but with social media things can change in a matter of hours and a story can become big whether it's true or not and most of the times the information is wrong.

"It's too fast and you are not able to manage it and suddenly thousands or even hundreds of thousands even millions of people are spreading false information about you.

"So, that's something you also have to manage, and you can imagine, you are inside your home, you have to prepare for the Olympics, you are not able to go out because of Covid, and so your new best friend is social media.

"On one hand it's really good, but on the other hand it can be very dangerous."

Source Article