News of Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the gymnastics competition immediately changed the narrative of the Tokyo Olympics. The biggest news before her announcement revolved around the safety of athletes and the Japanese people during the pandemic.
But her news pivoted the Games from the macro concerns of the many to the micro concerns of the greatest gymnast of all time. She pulled out of the women’s team competition and then the all-around, saying she needed to focus on her mental health. Instead of a physical injury that prompts an athlete to withdraw, this was something different.
In an interview during NBC’s coverage on July 27, 23-time gold medalist Michael Phelps (who was there as an analyst for NBC) equated his own experience as an athlete to being an animal in a zoo. Phelps has been public about his battle with depression, and he went on to say that the Olympics – even in a non-Covid year – can be “overwhelming” and talked about the “weight of gold” as a difficult burden to shoulder even for dominant athletes.
Imminent physical danger
The first sign that something was wrong came when Biles did a warm-up vault where the commentators immediately noticed something – Biles seemed to lose her bearings mid-air before survival instincts kicked in to land her on her feet safely. Other gymnasts have noted that anyone else in her position would have got injured at best, paralyzed at worst.
Everyone tends to focus on women’s gymnastics’ grace, beauty and athleticism. The casual observer may overlook that those vaults put women high up in the air, and those balance beams routinely break bones or worse if there is a head injury. There are many examples of severe injuries caused by pushing their bodies to go beyond what was thought possible.
Moving the mental health conversation forward
Biles stood by her decision, explaining her situation during a press conference: “Whenever you get in a high-stress situation, you kind of freak out. I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being. We have to protect our body and our mind. It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”
Biles went on to cite Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open and Wimbledon for the sake of her mental health as an inspiration and added that she and her teammates are “not just athletes, we’re people at the end of the day.”
Old-school athletes and sedentary commentators may grumble that these athletes are weak or not up to their supposed standards, but as Biles, Phelps, Osaka and others point out, the lives of modern-day elite-level athletes are far more complex and physically demanding than those faced by past generations.