Verity Ockenden on the tightrope athletes walk between online self-promotion and self-harm, plus why honesty is the best policy when it comes to meeting the media
“You’re on holiday now. I don’t want you to think about running. I don’t even want you to pack your trainers.”
That’s what my coach told me when we sat down to debrief over coffee after the last workout of the year. Initially, I resisted. I felt that, with all of the enforced rest my injury-ridden year had allowed me already, I didn’t need to take yet another break from running. Yes, I was tired of tracing a rocky path back to fitness via races that didn’t satisfy my previous goals, but I felt that I was only just beginning to find consistency again and I didn’t want to let that go.
The maintenance of my physical fitness however, was not my coach’s primary concern. The point of this season break would be to draw a line in the sand psychologically. Come September, we would begin afresh, having left the weight of my dissatisfaction behind.
Newly convinced of the benefits of a complete holiday, I packed my suitcases and headed south to the sunny beaches of Italy’s heel. I threw myself into the dolce vita of three-hour luncheons, entire days spent asleep under parasols and late night gelato-fuelled promenades with the wild gusto of a child dive-bombing at the lido. For a time, I even forgot to log in to my social media accounts.
Soon enough, however, as the European Championships kicked off in Munich, I was tempted back to the endless depths of Instagram and Twitter to keep better abreast of the latest deluge of results from my favourite athletes, photographers and journalists.
Day by day, as the drama of the races gathered pace and media megaliths churned out fresh content faster than the protagonists could unlace their spikes, my own professional responsibilities towards these platforms began to nag at me once more.
I first downloaded Instagram in 2013 as a tender undergraduate who wished only to record the adventures of an Erasmus year in Siena alongside a culinary blog, filling my weekends with 800m and 1500m races as a relatively talented amateur.
When I moved to Texas as an NCAA athlete it became a useful way to keep friends and family up to date as our team travelled from the backwaters of Arkansas to the beaches of San Juan in pursuit of hardware. Returning to the UK post-graduation as a fully-fledged 5000m runner, however, it was time to either commit to constructing an uncertain career as sportswoman or forget about it in favour of a far more reliable nine ’til five.
My results alone were not going to cut it if I wanted to stand a chance of being able to pay my rent, let alone re-invest whatever I earned from running into all of the travel and self-maintenance required to really make it at the top. I remember sitting down over a pint at our local pub with a friend of a friend who worked as a recruiter for a global sports marketing company.
Willing as they were to lend a helping hand in getting my foot on the sponsorship ladder, the hard facts were that industry minimums required an athlete to have a following of at least 3000 in order for their advertising potential to have the desired reach. I was advised to go away and grow my profile through frequent and consistent storytelling (at least four days a week, if not seven), shameless self-promotion and savvy hash-tagging. It might take a year if I was lucky and managed to shed the typically British bashfulness that made me cringe every time I put myself in front of the lens.
Fast forward to 2022 and I’m sitting here feeling guilty that I haven’t uploaded a story for five days, all too aware of exactly what my followers want to see and hear. I have agreements with four separate companies to post a certain number of advertisements monthly and, obviously, the more interaction I generate, the better. Instagram’s personalised business insight graphs tell me that winning is always the most popular, closely seconded by anything involving a little nudity. But not even the world’s best can win all the time, and I’d much rather that people were genuinely interested in who I am and what I’m doing than in what I look like in my competition kit.
Striking the right balance between promoting both ourselves and the sport we love has always been a fine line to tread for athletes. We all want to see stadiums filled with passionate crowds and we know that telling our personal stories with authentic character helps fans develop a deeper invested interest in what they see on the field of play.
We want to inform our audience and provide them with the various schedules and viewing platforms required to follow along easily. We want to inspire younger generations to enjoy this sport as we do, and to help them navigate it healthily avoiding the many painful pitfalls it can present us with.
We mostly want to share the ups and downs of our odd little lives with those who cheer us on, but we also know that this kind of obligation to be constantly publicly interesting and open when we’re at our most vulnerable can become exhausting at times.
One need only listen to Irish marathoner Stephen Scullion’s resolutely honest podcast Road to the Olympics, an in-depth documentation of his oft tumultuous journey to the heights of our sport, to realise this.
This year I’ve seen a shift in the winds of the athlete-media relationship, however. It has been noticeable in the back-to-back build-ups to the many championships on deck this season, the collective “dark mode” of the majority of athletes on social media. Athing Mu, one of the most celebrated stars of the track this summer, did not publicly acknowledge her world championship title achieved on July 24 via social media for a full 17 days. And why should she? This is Athing’s world after all.
In fact, this very kind of abstinence is often advised by team leaders, coaches and sports psychologists who recognise the many negative effects of too much screen time. An influx of well-meaning good luck messages is, on the surface, a nice feeling, and yet it can leave an athlete feeling distracted and pressured to perform, riding unpredictable dopamine-fuelled hormone highs and crashing like a kid after too much Coca-Cola.
That’s also assuming one doesn’t mistakenly get tangled up in the insidious kind of pre-race speculation to be found on internet forums. Feathers have also been ruffled post-race as various high-profile athletes have chosen to skip mixed-zone press interviews after disappointing performances in efforts to protect their mental health. I also often wonder if these kind of sidesteps are part and parcel of the game of poker we play to secure selection for teams, having borne witness to the scrupulously unforgiving kind of athlete assessment forms circulated by national federations, with non-selection often being subjectively justified with statements such as “lacking championship mentality”.
Increasingly, though, as the season wears on and the inevitable fatigue begins to take root even in the bones of champions, I have noted far greater levels of candour in many an interview. There is a wonderfully unapologetic frankness between athletes and journalists who at this point have lived alongside each other out of suitcases around the world for months. Journalists have witnessed first-hand the rollercoaster of personal triumphs, defeats and every pothole that lay in between, and athletes begin to conduct their interviews with them where the conversation left off at the last championships.
Recently-crowned world champion Jake Wightman openly admitted that winning gold in Oregon meant that he subsequently didn’t enjoy the Commonwealth Games as much as he would have liked to. Irish 1500m phenomenon Sarah Healy spoke with searing honesty about how she felt her psychological game at the European Championships had let her down, describing the feeling as having “checked out” mid-race as though she no longer cared about the result, although in reality she cares so deeply it is almost too much to bear. You can well imagine the kind of cut-throat commentary to be had on topics such as these, with many an old-school onlooker taking sadistic pleasure in applying an overly simplified dog-eat-dog approach.
Those who risk the crude kinds of public criticism to be garnered from exposing their weaknesses on the world stage do so for the very purpose of creating a better environment for those who follow, and this is the mark of true sportsmanship.
Personally, as I sit on the sidelines living vicariously through my fellow competitors this year, I am grateful for them. Their honesty reminds me that they, too, have been where I am, and shows me that it is still not impossible for me to arrive where they are one day, too.
» This article first appeared in the September issue of AW magazine