The controversial British skater feels “a complete failure” and has temporarily hung up her blades – but at least her trolls have put the knives away, too.
I’M NOT USUALLY BOTHERED about winter sports, but my heart melted just a little bit when I heard the news about Elise Christie this week.
Scotland’s troubled, multiple World and European Speed Skating champion wrote on Twitter that she was feeling a “complete failure”, and would be taking a break from competition until next year.
After failing dramatically to add an Olympic medal to her laurels in both 2014 and 2018, Christie has been remarkably open about her struggles with mental illness – including taking antidepressants and self-harming.
She told the BBC in April that she was feeling better and excited about the future – but now appears to have suffered a significant relapse.
“I had told myself this would be a better year…. I weaned off the medication, stopped self harming and really started to move forward… out of the ‘darkness’,” she wrote.
“But I’ve been met the other side… by probably the most challenging and deflating years of my life.
“Unfortunately due to ill health for the most part, I won’t be racing until January 2020.”
On the face of it, there’s not much of a story here: a British winter sportswoman who serially fails to trouble the Olympic rostrum in her arcane minority event says she’s giving up for a while… why should we care? Well, for a start, there’s something Box Office about Christie; always something uber-dramatic going on in her life and work.
There’s the way that an athlete of her remarkable talent and achievements has contrived to flunk her shot at six Olympic finals in a row: getting disqualified four times and falling twice.
One collision in Sochi 2014 even led deranged South Korean fans to issue death threats against her online – her error also affected a Korean skater – prompting her to say she felt like “public enemy number one” four years later, as the games went to PyeongChang.
But what first alerted me to Christie’s existence was the sensational end of her PyeongChang dream, when she was disqualified straight after overcoming an ankle injury to qualify for the quarter-finals of the 1000m – her very last shot at gold.
“…despite being passed fit, her ankle was an issue immediately,” breathlessly reported the news channel Interview, on Christie’s last race.
“She collided with Hungary’s Andrea Keszler metres after the start and fell to the ice holding her ankle.
“She looked close to tears. But she got to her feet for a restart and then, despite being a distant last off the line amid obvious pain, fought exceptionally to get into the top two.
“Qualifying for the quarter-finals against that backdrop would have been remarkable, but after finishing second she was shown a yellow card for an unsafe manoeuvre.
“With the pain in her ankle, she was then carried from the arena by Team GB staff.”
Idly watching that race on the BBC, I couldn’t help feeling that the whole story – from the ‘Christie’s Olympic curse’ narrative to the way she went out like Winter Sport’s answer to James Brown – was a bit overwrought.
But it didn’t stop me – and others – being moved by the obvious mental anguish that Christie was going through.
“Elise is probably a bit shell-shocked and needs to let things sink in,” Sarah Lindsay, a three-time British Olympic short-track skater, said at the time.
“She should take a holiday,”
Others, however, found it hard to empathise, one man commenting below the line on YouTube: This awful woman is going to be getting funded for the next 4 years to completely fail once again.
Another man replied: My god yes.
A third man wrote: 6 finals and disqualified in 4.! Fell over in the other 2! I am sick to death of Christie weeping about how unlucky she is.
This prompted one woman (!) to back her girl up: A bit unfair. Winning Olympic medals is huge. Very heart breaking moments. Don’t watch her interviews if you don’t like her being upset.
And there’s the rub. Some people can’t seem to deal with other people being upset without reaching for terms like “sick to death of (her) weeping” or “awful woman”.
It’s the same constituency, I would argue, as the type that tells someone mentally ill to “pull yourself together” – because they have never been affected by psychological problems themselves.
The sort that – should they hear Christie’s health has declined once more – will probably be pissed off with her all over again.
And, although it’s irksome enough that old-fashioned, narrow-minded comments of this type are still being made, what’s far worse is the damaging effect that they have on people already suffering from poor mental health.
When your confidence is fragile, the last thing you want to hear is that others are sick of you weeping, or that you are an awful person – because what happens is that you internalise that harsh voice and start using it against yourself.
So when Christie writes, as she did this week, that “I’m disappointed in myself for not being able to do more, not being able to push harder through it”, what I think I hear is someone who’s listened to too many arseholes during her career.
While writing this blog, I’m often drawn to stories of elite athletes struggling with their mental challenges, because I think that seeing famous achievers go through such difficulties helps to de-stigmatise and demystify mental illness for the rest of us.
We can all see clearly what the athletes are trying to do – i.e. score points, go faster, win medals.
And so, when we understand that it is psychological issues stopping them from performing like we know they can, it becomes easier for us to sympathise and even empathise about mental health in general.
It becomes easier to accept that others – including people that we rub shoulders with every day – aren’t misfiring because they are “awful” people, but because they are in genuine difficulty.
Maybe this is why Christie’s brave message seems to have been received so positively – generating 1,500 ‘Likes’ on the Troll-infested Twittersphere – as well as job offers and sponsorship leads.
“I guess I wanted to share this because out there is someone else going through ‘crap’ and feeling like giving up,” Christie wrote at the end of her message.
“No matter how much I’ve moaned, cried, slept, broke, I’ve not given up and I won’t be.”
Whether it’s on Twitter or not; on or off the ice, it’s clear that there’s a lot to like about the brave and talented Elise…