My black dog fog
Track champion Raelene Boyle has battled depression for years, writes Darren Devlyn
BRUTALLY honest Raelene Boyle confesses she’s had her troubles negotiating a life punctuated by breathtaking highs and morale-crushing lows.
When you consider what the Olympic Games commentator and former track champion has experienced since the 1972 Munich Olympics, it’s no surprise she’s had difficulty achieving sustained emotional stability.
Thirty-six years after the threetime Olympic silver medallist was robbed of gold by a drug cheat in Munich, Boyle has learnt a simple life philosophy works best for her.
She applies the same attitude to life as she did to athletics: when you run, you win or you lose, but the result doesn’t change the fact you have to get on with the job. In the middle of hardship, she says, she’s tried to find strength and solace in what she has to look forward to.
Boyle, only 17 when she won her first Olympic silver medal in Mexico in 1968, says: ‘‘There was a period in life where I did dwell on (negative) things. It took me a long time to get over the Munich Olympics. I finally got over them in 1997 when I visited Renate Stecher (the East German drug cheat who robbed Boyle of gold).
‘‘I then realised success comes in many forms. I feel that the success of my life is that I’ve been able to get out and compete against the drug cheats and beat many of them. I’ve been beaten by the odd one, but I’ve been able to hold my head high and say I’ve never in my life taken so much as an aspirin to help me perform better. So that’s winning to me.’’
Boyle, an athletics commentator for Channel 7 in Beijing, has undoubtedly faced the greatest demons in her life off the track.
She plumbed the darkest recesses of her psyche in 1996, when told she had breast cancer.
Another joust with adversity came with ovarian cancer in 2000-01.
Then, three months before leaving her home in Queensland for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, Boyle was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, an abnormality of heart rhythm in which chambers of the organ cannot contract in an organised way. Side-effects for Boyle were extreme exhaustion and a racing pulse. Without surgery, she risked a stroke.
‘‘I had the atrial fibrillation fixed last year,’’ Boyle says.
‘‘I went to Adelaide for the surgery and stayed with ‘Macca’ (her commentating colleague and mate Bruce McAvaney, who is based in South Australia).
‘‘I’m feeling good. My heart is terrific, I have a lot more energy, but the thing I don’t have any more,’’ she adds with a laugh, ‘‘is youth. I’m not going jogging an hour a day on the beach or anything like that.’’
Tackling physical illness, she explains, can be straightforward.
‘‘You deal with it, you get through the tough times and look forward to the good times,’’ she says. ‘‘If you dwell on that stuff (facing treatment for illness) you just bury yourself early.’’
Enduring mental illness can be a far more complex affair, a fact illustrated by many who have talked openly about their battles.
In the lead-up to his death in 2002, Hollywood legend Rod Steiger gave a disturbing insight into his years of struggle with psychological illness.
‘‘It’s like being encased in rancid yellow jelly, all the while crying out for help,’’ Steiger says of depression. ‘‘But a lot of the time nobody can hear you.’’
Former British prime minister Winston Churchill described depression as ‘‘the black dog’’.
Churchill described how depression came unexpectedly, uninvited, sniffing at his door. He would hide away, but the ‘‘dog’’ would inevitably find its way in and sit beside him in the dark.
Boyle knows how it feels to have that dark cloak of depression wrapped around you.
‘‘Depression, the old black dog, is a horrible thing to deal with,’’ Boyle says. ‘‘I think because I’ve had it so long I manage it better these days. I don’t take medication for it any more. I’m lucky I have people around who encourage me to exercise and get out to the beach for a walk.
‘‘I have very good friends who help me through those very tough times, but it happens less and less. But the danger of it is always there. There are triggers, like if I lose a mate to cancer. A sad story can really tear me apart and sink me into depression.
‘‘It is hard. I found (fighting physical illness and depression at the same time) that I pushed people away who were closest and dearest to me. You go into a cocoon and it’s a real battle to get out of it.
‘‘Exercise salvages me from that. I’m sure exercise helps depression because it allows you to breathe fresh air and look at the reality and beauty of what’s around you.’’
Ready, set, go:
Raelene Boyle will commentate on athletics in Beijing.
Picture: CRAIG BORROW