New Zealand Athletes Federation boss Roger Mortimer believes the national sporting system is "playing Russian roulette" with the welfare of young athletes.

Mortimer's damning comments come after the issue of athletes' mental health was thrust back into the limelight by legendary US swimmer Michael Phelps, who said more needs to be done to support retired athletes.

Phelps – a 23-time Olympic gold medallist who is widely regarded as the greatest Olympian ever – opened up about his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts earlier this year.

In a recent interview with the BBC, the retired 33-year-old said athletes get "brushed aside" and more needs to be done to help retired athletes transition out of the public spotlight.


Mortimer says Phelps' experience also applies to New Zealand's local sports environment, adding that the issue roots back to when athletes are younger.

"Michael Phelps is absolutely correct that athletes are brushed aside when they're finished. But the problems start when they're much younger actually," Mortimer told Radio Sport.

"It's all around identity foreclosure where boys and girls are growing up in sporting environments where they sort of identify themselves as a sports person as opposed to a person that plays sport.

"The big difference being that they close themselves off to learning, development and other areas of their life.

"These can have dramatic consequences which is exactly what Michael [Phelps] looks to have gone through. You've got young men and women who are anchoring their sense of worth through an association with a highly volatile, temporary activity."

Several Kiwi athletes, both retired and active, have opened up about similar struggles to that of Phelps.

Paralympian Liam Malone has opened up about his depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts; former Warriors fullback Kevin Locke spoke about his battle with severe depression and attempted suicide; while retired All Black great John Kirwan has been one of the most prominent voices for athletes in the mental health space.

Michael Phelps. Photo / Photosport
Michael Phelps. Photo / Photosport

Mortimer says New Zealand sport has "dramatically lost our way", creating an unsafe environment for some athletes.


"In my opinion, we don't have a safe environment in New Zealand in our sporting environment for everybody. I honestly believe our system is playing Russian roulette with the welfare of young men and women.

"Their wellbeing is completely haphazard and it's completely dependent on whether they basically come across someone in their life that will keep them grounded. If that doesn't happen, then the consequences are drastic."

The country's narrow view of sports and its function, as well as its emphasis on medals contributes to the problem, Mortimer says.

"We have a government funded agency in New Zealand that has stated the rule about medals. And we've now had the greatest Olympic winner of all time coming out saying that the courage to face life itself far outstrips winning an Olympic gold medal any day of the week.

"I've been personally told by one of our great New Zealand Olympic gold medallists that they wished they had come fourth rather than winning."

Mortimer believes the issue – which he says will continue to intensify if it continues to be ignored – is preventable, and it comes down to a lack of leadership in New Zealand sport.


"These problems are preventable. These are issues that have been raised and ignored certainly in New Zealand for a long time. What we need is perspective to balance performance and they're not mutually exclusive, you can have both.

"I know gold medallists and World Cup winners and people that have had a great experience through sport because they've been exposed to a wider meaning of life during their time in sport.

"In my opinion, it all comes down to leadership. I think sport in New Zealand has a serious leadership void, and the unfortunate consequence is for many people involved in the system is that they have to pick up the pieces in this area.

"This is not rocket science. This is about leadership, this is about our vision on how we want to treat people. And these are all issues that have been communicated by a certain amount of people for a very very long time, and they've all gone completely ignored."


If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.

If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:


LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234

There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here