He has acquired more Olympic medals than any other athlete in history. The other was knocked out of the Games after just 250 seconds. But Michael Phelps and Ashley McKenzie, the 23-year-old British No 1 judoka, have one thing in common: both have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as does another high-profile Olympian, British gymnast Louis Smith, who this week helped win the first British men’s gymnastics team medal for a century.
Suddenly, a condition that is hugely stigmatised and still controversial, is unexpectedly in the spotlight. It raises several interesting questions. Does ADHD hinder or help sporting success? And can the Olympics offer a positive legacy for people suffering from it?
Phelps, the American swimmer with a record-breaking 19 Olympic medals to his name, is probably the most famous person in the world with ADHD,the top behavior disorder in Britain and the United States, which is estimated to affect 2-5% of children and young people. For Phelps, a gangly, hyperactive child who was diagnosed with the condition aged nine, the swimming pool was a sanctuary, a place to burn off excess energy. His mother, Debbie, once recalled being told by a teacher: “Your son will never be able to focus on anything.” It’s interesting that the boy who was unable to concentrate at school would sit for four hours at swimming meets waiting to compete in five minutes of races.
Louis Smith has spoken of how gymnastics was an outlet for his tremendous energy, and taught him discipline and manners. But Ashley McKenzie’s story is perhaps most dramatic of all. Expelled from three schools and placed in a psychiatric unit aged 11 because his mother was unable to cope, McKenzie also served time in a young offenders’ institute. He credits judo with saving him from prison, and in a recent BBC documentary called it a “mad booster” to his life, giving him “a pavement instead of walking on the road”.
“I don’t want to be looked at as, ‘He’s got ADHD and he’s the bad person.’ I’ve changed now,” he said.
But it is not as simple as sport rescuing him. McKenzie served three bans from judo for drinking and fighting, and on the last night of the Team GB training camp before the Olympics, he went out to celebrate his 23rd birthday and told a stranger at a bar: “I’m gonna smash your face in.” His ADHD may bequeath him energy but his sporting career is actually a hindrance to tackling his condition: he cannot take the medication he needs to treat his ADHD because it contains substances banned by the sporting authorities – hence his struggle to control his behaviour.
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