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Pau Gasol: ‘People called me a thousand nicknames for being lanky. The jokes do affect you psychologically’

The basketball legend, who wants to improve children’s health through the Gasol Foundation, considers mental problems a pending issue in professional sports

NBA
Pau Gasol inside the gym of Celestino Mutis secondary school in the Villaverde district of Madrid.Jaime Villanueva

Pau Gasol declared that he had exceeded all his dreams and expectations on October 5, 2021, when he announced his official retirement from the courts at the age of 41, when many other elite athletes have long since hung up their sneakers. But the NBA legend and Olympic athlete had prepared his retirement ahead of time, after the arduous task of getting his left ankle back in shape after a serious injury in March 2019 while playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, and his epic title-winning return to FC Barcelona to prepare for the delayed Tokyo Olympics, after which he and his brother Marc both announced they had played their final game.

Since then, Gasol the NBA star has returned to being a little more like Pau Gasol Sáez the man. Born into a family of basketball players and health workers, those passions were born with him. He wanted to be a doctor like his mother, but the courts beat out the anatomy rooms. In 2013 he founded the Gasol Foundation with Marc, with whom he shares a career in sports and a history of social work aimed at fighting childhood obesity. In 2019 UNICEF Global named him Global Champion for Nutrition and Zero Childhood Obesity, and in 2021 he was elected to join the International Olympic Committee (IOC). This past Thursday he presented the preliminary results of the PASOS 2022 Study on the lifestyles of Spanish children and teens between the ages of eight and 16: one in three is overweight or obese and, after the pandemic, they are more unhappy. The news conference took place at Celestino Mutis Secondary School, a public center in Madrid’s working-class district of Villaverde, which participated in the study.

Question. Childhood obesity is a silent pandemic that gets very little publicity. Why did you and Marc decide to focus your efforts on it?

Answer. We took some time to analyze some of the biggest threats to childhood, and we saw that one of them was the increasing rates of excess weight and obesity in boys and girls, and not just in the US. We saw that it was a problem that was afflicting many parts of the world and that it was on the rise. That’s why we chose childhood obesity.

Talking about psychological and emotional problems has been one of the great stigmas within sport

Q. I don’t know if at some point in your childhood you suffered any discrimination due to your singular physique [Pau is listed as 7 ft 1 in (2.15m) and Marc is 6 ft 11 in (2.11 m)]. What would you say to a girl or boy who feels stigmatized because of their obesity or other physical trait?

A. The issue of bullying during one’s childhood and teenage years is important, all the little jokes may sometimes seem harmless, but in the end they do affect you and give you a hang-up. Obviously, I am speaking for myself. I was always a very tall, skinny child. I stood out because of my height and people called me out for being lanky, plus a thousand other nicknames... But in the end, it’s a process, a part of our growth. The message to the boys and girls is that what makes us different makes us special. Because someone laughs at you or makes a joke, it does not define you, and above all you should understand that you are a special person with a lot to contribute to the world. Obviously, if there is a health issue concerning obesity or some other problem, there must also be awareness. On a social level, this is what we are aiming for with the work of the foundation and also with Spain’s National Strategic Plan for the Reduction of Childhood Obesity. We want to raise awareness within school environments and in society, so that people understand that these types of comments or jokes, depending on who you make them to, can stigmatize and affect them emotionally and psychologically.

Q. You’ve had a particularly long sports career despite your injuries. What have you done to try to achieve balance and stay in shape physically and emotionally?

A. I have tried to take care of myself as much as possible, while realizing that high-level athletes are people too and that no one is perfect, none of us are robots. It has also been important to surround myself with a professional team that helped me take care of myself. On an emotional level, it has been more with my family. I have been lucky to have a very positive family environment. It is not always the case and that must also be taken into account. And then, I really enjoyed what I’ve done. In the end, it’s about dedicating yourself to what you are passionate about, what you enjoy doing and for which you are willing to do whatever it takes to do the best possible job for as long as possible, as I have been able to do despite an injury. Although in the final stage, when you have accumulated such a big load, because the body has its limits, it has also given me a fresh perspective on life and our vulnerability.

Little is said about suicides, depressions, tragic cases of people who have represented their countries

Q. Would you change anything, taking into account your injury and how tough your recovery was?

A. I don’t know if I would do many things differently. You learn from your mistakes, they make you grow. And I don’t suppose I made that many if I’ve been able to play for so long and at such a high level. And in the end, it’s also what I wanted. Because for me, playing for my national team when some high-level players my age in the NBA haven’t been able to do that, it has meant a lot to me, to my colleagues and to our country, which are all of enormous value to me.

Pau Gasol at Celestino Mutis Secondary School in Madrid's Villaverde district.
Pau Gasol at Celestino Mutis Secondary School in Madrid's Villaverde district.Jaime Villanueva

Q. Do you think that the environment, the team, still puts too much pressure on the time a player needs to fully recover?

A. It depends on the environment you are in. Little by little it is improving in that respect. It’s a balance, it’s a pretty fine line to give a player the necessary time to recover, without exceeding it. And that time varies from person to person, not all athletes recover at the same speed from the same injury, although there are some protocols. But I do think there is a little more awareness. In the end, oftentimes what you have to do is to protect the athletes from themselves, because the player wants to play. So the team says, ‘oh, you want to play? Well great then, come and play.’ And what this can create are long-term effects that make the injury worse or create a chronic injury. It’s about striking that balance where you are protecting the athlete without delaying the recovery process, but without harming them and always looking after their health.

In the end, oftentimes what you have to do is to protect the athletes from themselves, because the player wants to play

Q. In your documentary you talk about the high rate of NBA players who suffer from depression or other mental health problems, especially after their retirement. You say that 60% go broke within five years after retiring, and 80% get divorced. Is psychological health, emotional well-being, the pending issue of professional sports and in particular of elite sports?

A. It is one of the priority points that, fortunately, is gaining increased prominence. More light is being shed on it and it is being discussed more openly. Talking about psychological and emotional problems has been one of the great stigmas within sport. Because these denote a vulnerability, a weakness that is a bit unnatural when it comes to competing and wanting to be the best and the strongest. More and more importance is being given to it, more resources are being provided to the professional teams in the top leagues, but it is also important that it be extended to all sports because it is a necessity. A necessity and a complex problem with no easy solution. But if we talk about it, if we share problems in a natural, open, organic way, without feeling bad about it, then we are going to make progress.

Q. What can be done by the IOC, of which you are a member?

A. It is a long-distance race. Steps are being taken, both by the IOC and by leagues and federations. And empathy will continue to grow because there have been many cases. Some are talked about, others less so. Little is said about most of them, about the suicides, the depressions, the tragic cases of people who were exceptional in their field and represented their countries, not only in Spain but throughout the world.

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