Marcel Kittel - From sprint star to mental health champion
Marcel Kittel was once one of the best sprinters in the entire world of cycling, and then all of a sudden he walked away from the sport. The German sprint star, who has won a stage at all three of the Grand Tours sat down with Eurosport's Raw podcast to discuss his cycling career and what can be done differently to help all athletes with their mental health.
Marcel Kittel was at the top of his game, and the world of cycling was expecting many more years of excellence from him, but at the age of just 31, Kittel unexpectedly decided to retire. Sport can provide solace to a lot of people, but when your sport involves you being alone for long periods of time, constantly under the spotlight and working your mind and body to its limits, it can take much of the enjoyment out of it.
Now aged 33, Kittel spoke on Eurosport’s podcast Raw about his career and the challenges he faced with his mental wellbeing as a cyclist, raising the question of what more can be done in cycling to support its athletes?
Germany’s Kittel signed his first professional contract in 2011 and achieved success very quickly. He won four stages at The Tour of Poland and was picked to make his debut at a Grand Tour in the Vuelta a España; all in his first year as a professional. He explained: “that whole first year, the time was flying there and success was coming so quickly. It was really hard to digest and I was just on a high the whole time and I thought, okay this will never end.”. His success continued, and he finished his first season by winning two stages at the Herald Sun Tour and made his Tour De France debut the following year. He was the new poster boy on the scene and Velo News even called him a ‘revelation’. But 2012 saw a huge turning point for cycling. Lance Armstrong was found guilty of doping offences, and the sport – as well as all of its athletes – came under immense scrutiny and was the subject of increased attention.
In 2013, seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong admits to Oprah Winfrey that he used banned substances for years
Image credit: Eurosport
These revelations and the consequences that came with it affected Kittel and his belief in the very sport that had given him everything he could have dreamed of in his first season. He started to doubt his fellow athletes and lose belief in their achievements. He recalls the whispers about Mustafa Sayar between other cyclists before it was revealed in 2013 that Sayar had indeed tested positive for using performance enhancing drugs. For Kittel, this doubt could get “stuck” in his head, and he found himself starting to doubt good performances from other cyclists. And if you can no longer fully enjoy impressive performances, how much can you enjoy of it all?:
If you lose that aspect of sport, I think you really lose one main reason to watch sports in general because if someone is pushing the limits of the whole sport a bit higher, that's exceptional, but of course you also need to be sure that this athlete is doing it in a clean way
Nevertheless, he continued to do his best to believe in his sport and push his career forward. By 2013, Kittel bounced back from an unfortunate bout of food poisoning during the 2012 Tour De France, and this time found himself sprinting to victory to gain his first yellow jersey. He then went onto win in the 10th and 12th stages and even beat Mark Cavendish – who had won the sprint down the Champs-Élysées four years in a row – in the final stage.
In 2014, his success rocketed as he went on to win stages at the Giro D’Italia, the Tour De France and the Tour of Britain. He was in the midst of incredible success and yet by 2015, it all came crashing down. He found himself increasingly falling ill and having to pull out of races, and by the time the Tour De France came around in 2015, he was not even nominated to compete. Kittel explained that becoming ill was due to the full-on nature of the career he had so far had: “I think the main reason was me getting sick early in 2015, because I've never really given myself rest in those years before. […] I felt tired. And then at the same time, I had still, this big racing program, all this media around me that also asks your energy.”
Kittel competing in the 2012 Tour de France
Image credit: Eurosport
And as he continued to get back into cycling - only to continually stop and start again - he noticed that he began questioning why he was even doing it. Why was he spending hours away from his family? Why was he going through years of exhaustion, unable to process the success and attention that had just come before him? So by 2019, with many years of his career still ahead of him, he retired.
Kittel is not alone in struggling to cope with both the physical and mental pressures that come with elite sport. A number of cyclists have made headlines for struggling with their mental health, both while competing and after retirement. British cyclist Callum Skinner has even criticised British Cycling’s handling of his difficulties. He, like Kittel, had felt overwhelmed with his career and wanted to take a break, but he says he was instead met with pressure on whether he would be able to return in time to compete in the Olympics, and therefore felt like his performance was prioritised above his health. There was also the tragic suicide of young cyclist Kelly Catlin who battled depression after an undiagnosed concussion from cycling. Her father also believes that her suicide was due to the high-intensity nature of being an elite athlete, stating that he thinks her death came as a result of a number of factors related to being a cyclist including “her success-at-all-costs personality”, overtraining and stress. Depression and mental illness are of course not unique to just cyclists nor elite sportspeople, but Kittel does believe that the conditions of elite cycling does lend itself to just pushing through the hurt instead of taking time to process it: “there are all these emotions that you're going through, but also not going through because as a cyclist, you're used to the fact that you are suppressing pain”. And while he is accepting that there is a certain “rawness” to the sport that will always be there at the elite level, he still believes more can be done by governing bodies to “protect the athlete”.
Kelly Catlin (second from right) with her USA teammates after winning Silver at Rio 2016
Image credit: Getty Images
The UCI did meet in June 2021 to discuss these issues and reiterated the importance of both mental and physical wellbeing for cyclists, and Kittel is also optimistic that future generations in cycling will learn from his experiences. But for Kittel, these changes are appearing too late. He recognises that all elite sportspeople will have to sacrifice things in order to be successful, but he decided he would no longer continually sacrifice his mental wellbeing, even for the chance at more success in the sport he loved. So instead, he retired having lived out his dream and having achieved incredible success, but most importantly, he retired with the priority to live his life with happiness above all else.