Simone Biles after competing in the Tokyo 2020 preliminary competition. Photo: @simonebiles via Instagram.

During the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, Simone Biles sparked worldwide controversy when she withdrew from the US gymnastics all-around competition and multiple individual events due to problems involving mental health. Most consider Biles to be the greatest gymnast of all time, so her decision to not compete sent the world into shock in late July.

In 2016, Biles won an astounding four gold medals and one bronze medal in the Rio Olympic Games, with her specialty events being vault and floor exercise. This feat solidified her status as one of the most talented athletes in the world. Multiple skills have even been named after the gymnast. Despite her obvious ability to perform at the very top of her level and under pressure, Bile is no stranger to adversity. 

This year, the US team did not receive first place in the qualifying competition for the first time since 2008, with Biles stepping out of bounds multiple times on floor exercise and vault. It seemed to just be a bad day, but on July 27, Biles dropped out of the team all-around finals to address her mental health after performing an uncharacteristically simple skill on vault compared to her usual high level of difficulty. 

Biles suffered from the “twisties,” a mental block that prevents one’s body and mind from connecting, causing gymnasts to become lost in midair. According to The Washington Post, despite its seemingly harmless name, this terrifying problem meant that Biles performed half the twists she meant to and had little control over her body, an obvious safety hazard when competing Simone Biles-level skills. The predicament is hard to escape in midair and takes going back to the basic level to overcome. When one contracts the “twisties,” it becomes difficult to relearn once easy skills, therefore, USA Gymnastics decided, along with Biles, that it was absolutely necessary for her to withdraw to protect her own physical health and safety.

While Biles received massive amounts of support from former Olympic gymnasts, celebrities, and the general public, she also faced an influx of criticism from social media users claiming that she let down her team and country. One cannot deny that after her history-making 2016 performance, Biles was the face of this year’s Olympic Games; this immense amount of pressure created stress, anxiety, and the decline of Biles’s mental health even before The Games began. In an Instagram post, she said she had the “weight of the world on [her] shoulders.” She later noted that she felt that gymnastics should not be the only important part of her life and it was finally time to address her mental well-being and allow for a potential medal to not be her first priority.

Biles’ bravery in stepping down created international conversation on the vitality of mental health. People often overlook athlete mental health issues and primarily focus on their more obvious physical well-being. Athletes like Biles or tennis star Naomi Osaka have fought against this notion, promoting to their followers that athletes do not have to be stoic, tough, and OK all the time. Feeling pressure should not be considered a weakness. Biles pushed against the stigma surrounding athlete mental health, and her identity as a Black female and the face of her sport made this all the more difficult. She felt that the fun of her sport had been taken away in order to “please other people” and that she is more than her Olympic accomplishments.

In short, Biles’ story seemed to be all social media could discuss during the Tokyo Games; this promotion of vulnerability was not the history Biles intended to make when she began her 2020 Olympic campaign, but her disappointment in her performance and failure to live up to expectations allowed for a far more important message to come across: even the best are human too.

 

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