Often referred to as ‘Greatest Of All Time’ or GOAT, gymnast Simone Biles has yet again proven her strength by withdrawing from the team finals of Artistic Gymnastics at the Tokyo Games. After stumbling her landing from a vault she’s been nailing in competitions since 2018, Biles decided to quit, prioritizing her mental well-being over medal success. With a combined 30 medals at the Olympics and World Championships, the 24-year-old is the most decorated American gymnast of all time.
"Physically, I feel good. I'm in shape. Emotionally, it varies on the time and moment. Coming to the Olympics and being [the] head star isn't an easy feat," Biles told the American media about how the pressure of securing medals weighed her down. Biles is the second athlete of late who has taken such a strong stance to protect her mental well-being, following in the footsteps of tennis star Naomi Osaka.
Earlier this year, the World No 2 withdrew from the French Open after controversy erupted over her decision to skip mandatory post-match news conferences. The 23-year-old revealed that she had been struggling with anxiety and depression and did not want to face invasive questions from the media.
Backlash for choosing mind over medals
Athletes withdrawing from competitions due to injuries is common, as playing while not in full form can aggravate existing issues. But, many who reacted to Biles’ decision to forgo the chance to compete did not extend the same gravity towards her mental health.
Critics took to social media to call her out for letting her team down (who went on to win silver). British commentator Piers Morgan tweeted that Biles was using her mental health as an excuse for poor performance and that she should strive to do better. She already has four gymnastic moves named after her and a plethora of accolades, so the space to “do better” is limited when you’re already one of the best. Radio talk show host Charlie Kirk also chose to describe her as a “selfish psychopath”.
Had Biles sprained an ankle or pulled a muscle, would she be subject to such vitriol? No athlete or person deserves to be criticized for putting themselves first, least of all a young woman who has carried the weight of America’s expectations for almost a decade now.
In an interview in April this year, Biles revealed that she had more reasons to stay in gymnastics, a sport where most athletes retire by their early twenties. "If there weren't a remaining survivor in the sport, they would've just brushed it to the side," Biles says, referring to the case against former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. As of 2016, over 350 gymnasts including Biles came out to accuse Nassar, and several other gym owners and coaches of sexual misconduct. Nassar is currently serving his 100-year long prison sentence while some others have faced criminal charges. It is a well-documented fact that survivors of sexual assault may experience an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I can’t stop thinking about how Simone Biles said that part of why she didn’t retire is bc she worried that if she did, as the only survivor of Larry Nassar’s abuse who is still an active elite gymnast, it would make accountability for USAG less likely
— Jules Amin (@jules_amin) July 26, 2021
Biles has also battled the stigma attached to mental conditions when leaked documents revealed that she was on medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In 2018, in an interview with Good Morning American, she had also opened up about taking anti-anxiety medication to deal with other mental symptoms.
In an op-ed, former US national gymnastic champion Scott Wilbanks explains that gymnasts may also struggle with “twisties” or a loss of air sense in the middle of a flip. Explaining that stress and PTSD may further aggravate the issue, he clarifies that it is dangerous to compete when a gymnast is not in the right state of mind as they perform through injury and hardship. Others on social media also pointed to gymnasts like Russian medallist Elena Mukhina, who was permanently paralyzed in 1979 after practicing a difficult move under pressure. For Biles, who performs some of the world’s most difficult gymnastics moves while high in the air, even a moment of disconnect between mind and body could be lethal.
Setting a precedent for balanced sportsmanship
People often seem to forget that behind the glitz and glamour of being a world-class athlete, there is a human being. A human being with flaws and worries who is allowed to put herself before anything — be it her team, her sport, or her country.
Along with the criticism that Biles has received, comes a wave of support from athletes, performers, and others who understand the pressures of being in the limelight. “We need to do better by her, by our athletes. This is sport and sport is, by definition, supposed to be fun. It’s not an obligation,” Wilbanks writes, a sentiment that people are leaning towards as more athletes dare to be more vulnerable while in the public eye.
Biles’ social media comments are flooded with people thanking her for showing the younger generation that it’s okay to prioritize one’s well-being. Many also lauded her vulnerability, leadership skills and bravery to throw off enormous expectations and take such a strong stance at an international level.
After withdrawing from the finals of the individual all-round competition on Wednesday, it is yet to be seen whether Biles will compete in upcoming individual events. But whether she does or not, she has already won by emerging as the role model the world desperately needs today.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)