Simone Biles is a vanguard. She’s a revolutionary. The question is how many will be permitted to follow her lead.
On Tuesday, Biles withdrew from the women’s gymnastics team final midway through the competition, and later bowed out of Thursday’s individual all-around.
The 24-year-old American referenced a need to focus on her mental health when discussing why she’d exited when she did.
“I truly do feel that I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times,” Biles posted on Instagram before bowing out of the women’s team event. “I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me, but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The Olympics are no joke!”
Although no longer competing with her team, she handed out chalk, helped with bags, gave high-fives. She was still present. Still engaged. Still a teammate. But, at the same time, she made it clear she doesn’t owe the world her talent at the expense of her health.
And she received support both from her teammates and the national governing body of her sport.
“We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being,” read a USA Gymnastics statement. “Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.”
After further medical evaluation, Simone Biles has withdrawn from the final individual all-around competition. We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being. Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many. pic.twitter.com/6ILdtSQF7o
— USA Gymnastics (@USAGym) July 28, 2021
We have an old-school notion that resiliency is fighting through things and persevering no matter what. But in actuality, resilience is making the tough decision and taking the hard course of action because that’s what’s best in the long run.
Still, Biles was hard on herself in the post-game presser.
“I didn’t do my job; they came out and stepped up,” she said of her teammates, who went on to win silver. “This medal is all for them and the coaches and has nothing to do with me because they did it without me.”
But it was her authenticity on mental health that opened a door for further examination, and for other athletes to make similar decisions for themselves.
“I say put mental health first. It’s okay sometimes to sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and person you really are,” she said. “I just felt it would be a little bit better to take a back seat and work on my mindfulness.”
Sounds eerily similar to Naomi Osaka. Osaka withdrew from the French open in June because of her own mental health concerns. After returning to competition for the Olympics and lighting the Olympic cauldron in Tokyo, she was knocked out in straight sets in the third round.
Another face of the Games along with Biles, she too referenced the intense spotlight of the moment.
“I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this,” explained the No. 2–ranked player in the world.
This feeling isn’t unique to these two athletes. COVID concerns, no family present, no fans — the Tokyo Games in many ways are a perfect storm for anxiety.
And Biles’s plight is made only more difficult by the fact that in order to chase her goals, she must represent an organization that has failed her and her fellow survivors in the wake of the Larry Nassar abuse revelations. She has continued to call out the organization on its lack of transparency and has said that as long as she performs in an American uniform, she will keep pressure on USA Gymnastics to provide answers and pledge to do better.
how about you amaze me and do the right thing... have an independent investigation https://t.co/58Gc9QUk76
— Simone Biles (@Simone_Biles) March 14, 2020
Biles is well aware that her platform in the sport speaks volumes.
She spoke about the Karolyi Ranch training centre, which was the site of abuses — it was then closed.
She spoke about the guilt that sits at the feet of USA Gymnastics — board resignations followed.
Gymnasts have not always had the correct people around them. But Biles is doing everything in her power to change that.
Still, the question remains: Do athletes more broadly have the correct people around them? And are there enough of those people in the giant machine of major men’s sports in North America, where the spotlight is just as intense?
For instance: Could LeBron James do what Simone Biles did in the NBA finals and receive support on social media? Would an NHL hockey coach be empathetic of a situation like this with one of his players during the Stanley Cup? Could an NFL QB sit out the Super Bowl without reprisal from his sponsors?
I’d like to say yes, but I highly doubt it.
We’ve come a long way in terms of addressing mental health in major sport in recent years, but not far enough that a choice like the ones Biles made would readily be normalized in major North American sporting culture.
That said, there’s no telling the ripple effect a move like this may have.
Biles’s Olympics are not necessarily over as she’s also qualified for the finals in all four apparatuses, which are next week.
Whether she competes again in Tokyo or not, though, this moment doesn’t put a dent in her incredible legacy — in fact, it cements it. And maybe that’s the lesson, that despite the pressure to win, athletes putting themselves first is always a winning strategy. In the copycat arena that is competitive sports, I hope that doctrine is applied more broadly.
What she did is more valuable than any Olympic medal. It may have saved lives.