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We are the Champions, a Time for Losers: A Qualitative Study of Retired Olympic Athletes

Mon, August 13, 2:30 to 4:10pm, Pennsylvania Convention Center, Floor: Level 100, 113A


Elite athletes push their bodies to the limit demonstrating our ultimate physical potential. Their bodies are scrutinized and held to the highest performance standards. Yet, when they retire, elite athletes are often cast aside despite the tremendous potential they hold to offer insights about embodied processes and resilience. This study examined the construction of retirement identity among former Olympic athletes to understand the process that follows from inhabiting a privileged body to moving into a state in which one’s social purpose must be reconstructed. For this qualitative study, I conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 24 retired Olympic athletes following an approach informed by narrative gerontology. Three key themes emerged: 1) Participants faced challenges because they lacked role models to help with transitions to retirement and physical decline that accompanied their retirement; 2) in spite of participants’ former focus on winning, their experiences with loss proved valuable in their adaptation to retirement; and 3) retirement was described as an opportunity to recalibrate social purpose and to pursue generative endeavors. In our excitement to celebrate winning in sports, we often ignore the lessons that can be associated with loss and adaptation to new physical states. This paper develops analogies between the ways society all but abandons the athlete whose body no longer performs at peak ability and the aging individual who must adapt to imposed changing identities. Findings from this study shed new light on retirement identity by integrating theoretical work from embodiment theory to highlight the value of sharing retirement stories, demonstrating that drawing strength from loss and from generative desires for social engagement can be fundamental retirement experiences.


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