What Biles’s Olympic exit says about elite sport

Tokyo Olympics updates

The Olympics are different. This is particularly true this year: the pandemic has made for an idiosyncratic Games. But even in normal times, an Olympic gold medal is the stuff of childhood dreams in a way winning a world championship is not. Countries have also bought into the legend, with nations’ hopes resting on young athletes’ shoulders. Simone Biles knows this more than most, coming to Tokyo aged 24 already with four Olympic golds. But her surprising (partial) exit ought now to prompt a discussion about pressure on athletes, heightened by the vast amounts of money poured into securing Olympic medals, as countries expect a return on their investment.

Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Games, held that it was not the winning but the taking part that mattered most. That Olympic spirit risks being overshadowed by countries’ desire to dominate the medal table. The professionalisation of sport has largely been a force for good, allowing talented youngsters to fulfil their potential and lessening financial sacrifices their families must make. But there can be a flipside, from institutionalised doping to abuse suffered by young athletes chosen for gruelling training, all in the name of victory, no matter the cost.

Biles embodies that system in many ways: overcoming a childhood in foster care, her virtuosity was honed to world-class level — but she also suffered sexual abuse by USA Gymnastics’ doctor, Larry Nassar. What she is not, is weak. Her decision to partially step back on mental-health grounds should be respected, not vilified.

Sustaining an injury in gymnastics can be deadly. Julissa Gomez is a sad reminder: the top-ranked US gymnast died after breaking her neck during a 1988 competition. Biles explained that during a routine this week, she became disorientated mid-air. She is correct to withdraw. Another gold medal is not worth a potentially fatal injury.

Her decision is reminiscent of Naomi Osaka’s exit from the French Open tennis championship in June. Osaka, who lit Tokyo’s Olympic torch, is another young woman who has been forthright in explaining how the spotlight can exacerbate mental-health issues. 

These Olympics have heaped pressure on all athletes, who have had to cope with a lack of hands-on support from family, a dearth of spectators, and an extra year of anticipation. But even in 2021, female athletes must also face heavier expectations when it comes to how to behave and look. Most regrettably, as women of colour, Biles and Osaka suffer vile racist abuse.

Female athletes are more objectified than their male peers. Consider the smaller women’s outfits in gymnastics, athletics or volleyball, which have little to do with enhancing performance and everything to do with attracting eyeballs. Norway’s beach handball team underscored the point this month, receiving fines for daring to wear shorts rather than regulation bikini briefs.

German gymnasts, too, have decided to wear less revealing unitards. Credit must go to the German gymnastics federation, which supported their choice and dubbed it a stand against the sexualisation of athletes, expressly linking it to the sexual-abuse scandal that has rocked the sport, most notably at the US team, as Biles can attest.

To get as far as the Olympics, athletes must be extraordinary in physical prowess, competitive spirit and mental determination. But they are not superhuman. Olympism defines itself as “exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind”. This is what spectators and nations should cheer, not winning at the expense of athletes’ welfare.

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