What does it take to win a gold medal? Athletic ability? Motivation? Luck? All three? Or is it something else? According to multiple sources, it requires a whole lot more, including at least one traumatic childhood event and an obsessive, perfectionist attitude.
Lew Hardy, an exercise science professor at Bangor University in Wales, published a study in a journal called Progress in Brain Research in 2016 that found that Olympic gold medalists had a unique psychosocial profile. Today, Hardy’s finding may help sports fans predict who will win a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Hardy’s research began because British athletes historically underperformed at the Summer Olympics. In 1996, they sent 303 athletes to the Olympics in Atlanta and returned home with one gold medal. This embarrassment forced UK Sport, the governing body of athletics in Great Britain, to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to find and hone Olympic talent.
It worked: British athletes won 39 gold medals at the next three Summer Olympic games. But then in September 2009—with the London Summer Olympics only three years away—UK Sport invited the top coaches and exercise scientists to a closed-door meeting to figure out what British athletes needed to do to win more gold medals in London.
Hardy was at that meeting in 2009 and knew, based on the research, that gold medalists did not practice more or have more talent than non-medalists. They did not have a better birthdate or a more favorable birthplace either. Hardy launched a study to find out what was different about gold medalists.
His study consisted of 32 ex-Olympic athletes, with 16 having won at least one gold medal. The other 16 athletes had never medaled.
Hardy questioned these athletes, their parents and coaches to find anything that was different about the groups. The data revealed that the gold medalists had eight psychosocial characteristics that the non-medalists did not have. Many of these characteristics were ugly and unhealthy. One characteristic came up during an interview between one of Hardy’s researchers and an Olympic coach.
The coach was telling the researcher about a friend with an athletic son. “He’s got this son who just won the Great South Run,” the coach said. “He’s just a brilliant athlete. He loves biking. He loves running. He’s going to be brilliant.” The friend wanted to know what he could do to turn his son into a world class athlete.
The coach told his friend, “If you want him to win…kick him out on the streets [because]…he’ll just throw himself into the sport. Happy kids don’t make great sports people in my opinion.”
Hardy’s data supported the coach’s advice: gold medalists had at least one major traumatic event in their childhood. Non-medalists had none. These included: the death of a parent, divorced parents, absent parents, growing up in a violent community, a dysfunctional home environment, physical abuse, sexual abuse, substance abuse in the home, moving frequently, a parent with mental illness, a major childhood illness, getting bullied, stuttering, a learning disability and poverty.
Another finding from Hardy’s study was that gold medalists were selfish and ruthless. One Olympic coach interviewed for Hardy’s study put it this way: “This is a big generalization, but most very successful people are incredibly selfish. You have to be selfish because you’re so far off the chart in terms of normal human behavior.”
Hardy’s team followed up on this point by asking one gold medalist, “Do you think it’s possible to get to the highest echelons of sport without being ruthless?”
“No, I don’t think you can. You have to be self-absorbed and know no one else is really important. Definitely, I was the most important person in my world.”
Hardy also found that the gold medalists were obsessive or perfectionistic towards their sporting goals. One gold medalist explained, “I am very, very obsessive; yes. Someone said to me last night, ‘You should come and play [recreationally with us] and you’ll love it.’ I said, yes, I might [love it] which is why I’m not doing it, because I don’t do things a bit, you know.”
The gold medalists also faced a crossroads moment in their careers that increased their dedication to their sport. They thrived under pressure. They were laser-focused on their sport. They had a burning desire to win. And they wanted to win and master their craft. Non-medalists did not have these traits.
The acronym O.L.Y.M.P.I.C.S is a way to remember Hardy’s profile. Here’s what each letter stands for:
O = Obsessive or Perfectionistic
L = Laser-Focused on their Sport
Y = Yucky Childhood
M = Mastery and Winning
P = Pressure (thrived under)
I = Instinct of a Killer (ruthless)
C = Crossroads Moment
S = Succeed (burning desire to)
Some felt that recruiters should find athletes that fit this profile and get them into the hands of the best coaches in Britain so they could be turned into gold-medalists. This opinion was not shared by everyone, including two experts who believe Hardy’s findings are interesting at best and fruitless at worst.
“I’m not saying there was any intentional falsifying of the data,” said sports psychiatrist and Olympic committee co-chair, Claudia Reardon. “It’s just a difficult study to make any definitive conclusions [from].”
Reardon’s concerns about Hardy’s study are its small sample size, monoculture focus, and recall bias since the participants answered Hardy’s questions years after they had competed.
Cindy Miller Aron, a licensed social worker in Portland with 20 years of experience working with elite athletes, expressed similar concerns. “It’s a very limited number of people that were interviewed. It’s also very culture bound,” Miller Aron said. “There aren’t simple answers to any of these things. There is no, ‘if this, then that’.”
Shane Murphy disagrees. Murphy, who spent eight years as a sports psychologist at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and wrote the bestselling book, The Achievement Zone, ran a study in the ‘80s similar to Lew Hardy’s. He found that “a certain percentage of these excellent athletes had these really negative experiences…and they took that and turned that into major fuel for motivation.”
According to Murphy, elite athletes were “pretty much ruthless in their selfishness. It’s not that they are horrible to family members and friends. But they just can’t spare the time to do a lot of normal stuff because they have to be totally focused on developing this skill and working so hard to get absolutely the maximum out of their talent level.”
But could Hardy’s profile predict who would win a gold medal in Tokyo? Noah Lyles, a top candidate in the 100, 200 and 4×100 meter races for Team USA, can help answer this question.
Noah Lyles was born on July 18, 1997 to Keisha Caine and Kevin Lyles. Keisha and Kevin met at Seton Hall University where they were students and world class sprinters. Kevin won a gold medal in the 4×100 meter relay at the 1995 World Championships. Keisha competed at the 1996 Olympic trials but never made the team.
When he was a kid, Noah had to be hooked up to a nebulizer every six weeks because of his asthma. “I remember going to the doctor or to the hospital in the middle of the night because I couldn’t breathe.” Noah missed so much school he had to repeat the first grade.
Noah was also diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD, and while this was going on Keisha and Kevin got divorced. Noah’s learning disabilities may be why he declined a scholarship to the University of Florida after high school. (Hardy would call this a crossroads moment).
Noah signed with Adidas after high school and moved to the National Training Center in Florida where he trained with coach Lance Brauman. Brauman worked tirelessly with Noah on form and speed. Their hard work paid off. Noah’s personal best in the 100-meters is 9.86 seconds, which is faster than Usain Bolt’s time when Bolt was the same age. Noah also ran an amazing 19.7 seconds in the 200-meter dash four times. But will it be enough to win a gold medal in Tokyo?
Some may argue ‘no’ because Noah displays only five out of the eight characteristics from Hardy’s study. He is laser focused. He endured a yucky childhood. He was focused on mastery and winning underneath Coach Brauman. He thrives under pressure. And he had a crossroads moment in his career. But, at the same time, Noah does not appear to be obsessive, ruthless or have a burning desire to win.
Realists, such as Miller Aron, would argue that winning a gold medal is more complicated than an athlete’s psychosocial profile. She would remind us that there is no “if this, then that.”