When Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s team event on Tuesday, the world’s greatest gymnast demonstrated that the heaviest burden of the Olympics is often the expectation to perform in them.
Biles said she was not in the right frame of mind to perform the dangerous tumbling feats for which she is famous, and subsequently decided to pull out of the individual all-around final. In the process, she has renewed a global conversation about mental health. The staging of the Tokyo Olympics during the pandemic — and all of its associated restrictions — has exacerbated the pressures of performance.
“We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,” Biles said.
The gymnast has had to cope with five years between Olympics and the challenges of the pandemic, in addition to surviving sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, a former doctor for the US gymnastic team. “I’m still struggling with some things,” she said.
A disconnect between mind and body
Biles has picked up the baton from other elite athletes who have spoken openly about their need to prioritise their mental health. Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka pulled out of this year’s French Open and retired US swimmer Michael Phelps, the most successful Olympian in history, has candidly discussed his struggles with depression.
“You can feel like a lot of people are watching you and that every move you make is being watched and judged and all those things, as much as we say that we try to ignore it,” said Katie Ledecky, the star US swimmer and multiple Olympic champion. “The most pressure I have is the pressure I put on myself. I am always striving to be my best, to be better than I’ve ever been, and it’s not easy when your times are world records in some events.”
Biles said disharmony between her body and brain was the specific reason she pulled out of the team competition, saying she experienced a phenomenon gymnasts refer to as “the twisties”: after completing a vault with fewer twists than planned, her body was not performing as her mind instructed.
“I did not choose to do a one-and-a-half. I was trying to do a two-and-a-half and I just was not clicking,” she told the Financial Times, adding that the difficulty of her routines made that disconnect life-threatening.
“You have to be there 100 per cent or 120 per cent because if you’re not the slightest bit, you can get hurt. Even on my vault I had no idea where I was in the air,” she said.
Before the Tokyo Olympics, some authorities had taken extra steps to assist athletes dealing with mental health struggles. The English Institute of Sport, a body that supports the training of top athletes, offered competitors, coaches and staff sessions with sports psychologists to address the anxiety caused by the delay to the Games and disrupted training patterns, as well as persistent uncertainty as to whether the event would even take place.
Kate Hays, a psychologist at the EIS, said the body set up “debriefing” programmes for athletes over the course of the pandemic, based on research into hostages and the methods used to reintegrate them into society. This was deemed the closest thing to dealing with the pressures created by lockdown.
Pressure to win had unfortunate consequences
Athlete welfare was also behind a switch in focus for the British team. UK Sport, the government-backed body that funds elite Olympians, has poured £883m into training medal hopefuls over the past 12 years. The money has been ruthlessly targeted at events in which there are multiple medals available, such as sailing, cycling and rowing.
But the incentives that system created led to accusations of a win-at-all-costs mentality which caused a number of bullying and abuse scandals. That spurred a shift in approach at the start of the Tokyo Games that included not releasing a medals target in an effort to change the impression that authorities cared more about glory than athlete welfare.
Jade Jones, the British Taekwondo athlete and two-time Olympic champion, lost in the first round last weekend, a shock result she attributed in part to the restrictions of the pandemic.
“I just felt I put too much pressure on myself going into it and I really did feel it more than I expected on the day. Not having my family there to push me out of that fear zone really did affect me and I’m just gutted I couldn’t have done more on the day,” she said.
Mark Adams, a spokesman for the International Olympic Committee, said the pandemic accelerated the organisation’s efforts to address mental health. The IOC now offers psychologists and a helpline in 17 languages to athletes in the Olympics village.
The ‘Simone Biles’ Olympics
But the expectations foisted upon Biles may have been higher than most.
“I live in the United States and anything that came on the TV, NBC or commercials about the Olympics it was Simone Biles,” said Rory McIlroy, the Irish golfer. “I mean it was the Simone Biles Olympics, right?”
Some non-sporting pundits have nonetheless questioned Biles’s decision. Aaron Reitz, the deputy attorney-general of Texas, called her a “national embarrassment” for pulling out of the team final, before subsequently apologising for his remarks and deleting his original tweet after an outcry.
Phil Dalhausser, a US beach volleyball player, said he was disappointed people would fault the gymnast for preserving her safety.
“I’ve seen both sides of the argument, that she’s soft, how could she leave the team, and to me they’re a bunch of Monday-morning quarterbacks” he said. “I think people are so quick to criticise.”
It was not evident if the negative remarks have weighed on Biles. She attended both the men’s and women’s all-around finals in Tokyo, cheering on her fellow gymnasts and erupting in applause when her teammate Sunisa Lee won the title on Thursday.
“The outpouring [of] love & support I’ve received has made me realise I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before,” she wrote on social media shortly before the event.