It’s an age-old debate: is elite sport actually good for you?

There is, and never will be, a definitive answer to this question.

But increasingly, the pendulum is swinging towards the negative.

One of the most compelling cases regarding the damage that can be caused by elite sport was forcefully made this week by Holly Bradshaw.

The English pole vaulter has admitted that looking back on her career, which saw her win indoor and outdoor European silverware, a world indoor medal as well as, most notably, Olympic bronze, she’s now wondering; “I question, is it really worth it? If I’ve damaged myself for the rest of my life?”

The damage to which Bradshaw is referring is, despite the strain that she’s inflicted upon her body, primarily not physical damage.

Rather, it’s mental and emotional damage caused by the daily rigours of elite-level training, the ever-present expectation that becomes an unflinching strain and the pressure of knowing that anything other than major championship success is seen as a failure.

It’s a view that’s been floated by athletes before, but rarely by one who’s reached the pinnacle, as Bradshaw did, and win an Olympic medal.

The Englishwoman talks of the trauma that she was forced to endure to reach the point of calling herself an Olympic medallist

“I was so meticulous, so organised, so on it in every single element of my life for ten years,” she said.

“I was collecting my sleep data, analysing my heart rate variability, weighing my food, weighing myself every morning. If I was too heavy, I’d have to starve myself for three months – I’d wake up in the middle of the night and have to neck a glass of water because I was so hungry but I was trying to drop weight.

“I don’t go out, I don’t drink, I don’t eat bad food. It’s not to say I’ve not had any joy but I’ve done so many things that have constrained me for so many years, I would describe it as living with unhealthy behaviours for so long.”

It’s a description that so many elite athletes will identify with.

Because show me an athlete who’s reached the absolute pinnacle of their sport and I’ll show you a weirdo.

An existence that enables you to become a top-class sportsperson is not a normal way to live.

Often, despite being at the absolute peak of physical fitness, it’s, as Bradshaw highlights, not a particularly healthy lifestyle.

The Herald: Tokyo 2020 Olympics File Photo

In the hours after winning her Olympic bronze medal at Tokyo 2020, the Englishwoman posted this message on social media: “I don't really know what to say right now other than my heart is full. I am overwhelmed with joy, pride & elation. I am SO grateful to every single person who has helped me along my journey, your support got me to this moment & I am eternally thankful.”

But hindsight, as so often happens, has given her a far less rose-tinted view of her experience.

What struck me in Bradshaw’s assessment of the Olympic Games is just how fickle she found it.

And it’s hard to disagree.

The Olympics is the shiniest, most glamerous event on the planet, and I even include the football World Cup in that.

Particularly for British athletes, literally no stone is left unturned and no opportunity is missed to make you feel special.

Firstly, there’s the unbelievably over-the-top kitting-out process, which, in my experience, saw each of us assigned a tailor to ensure our Opening Ceremony outfits fitted perfectly, included personalised treatment at every turn before ending the day departing with literally my bodyweight in new kit.

That’s before the Games themselves even begin.

Once the flame is lit, the experience becomes even more magical/superficial, delete as appropriate.

From the endless bottles of Coca Cola to the McDonalds located within the athletes village to the 24-hour dining hall, all of which are free-of-charge to athletes, it’s an entirely surreal two weeks.

I defy any Olympian to truthfully say they don’t get caught up in the other-worldliness of it all.

But Bradshaw’s point, and it’s an entirely salient one, is that the Olympic experience, all two weeks of it, is not real life. 

It is, says Bradshaw, a “short-lived, fickle” experience. 

It’s why so many athletes are struck with the post-Olympic blues, because the comedown is just so dramatic.

What’s funny about sport is that it’s universally agreed that taking regular exercise is a wholly positive thing.

But what’s becoming clear is that committing huge chunks of one’s life, and often a hugely formative part of one’s life, to excelling in one particular sport, isn’t a particularly good thing at all.

But the biggest problem is that there’s absolutely no obvious solution.

In Britain, elite athletes in Olympic sports are funded almost exclusively by the tax payer. Lottery money, which sustains almost all elite athletes in this country, is public money and neither is it fair nor reasonable to expect public money to be dished out without a pretty significant return on it.

There’s absolutely no way that prioritising happiness over results would go down well with the British public who are funding these athletes’ lifestyles.

Elite sport, ultimately, has to be results driven or else what’s the point of it?

But as Bradshaw highlights, the consequences of such a results-driven business can be dramatic and so it’s worth remembering that for all the glamour of something like the Olympic Games, it’s the tiniest snapshot of what an athlete’s life is really like.