Simone Biles: the mental health conversation that needed to be had
11th August 2021
Imagine this: you are the reigning Olympic champion. You are the most decorated athlete in your sport. You are considered the greatest gymnast of all time. You have the world watching your every move with inconceivably high expectations. You enter Tokyo 2020 as the favourite to sweep up five gold medals. Now, imagine that under that kind of scrutiny, your body starts to fail you in one of the biggest moments of your career.
Very few people in the world can relate to this crippling pressure and these enervating expectations. Very few, that is, except for Simone Biles. The five-time Olympic medallist and 25-time world medallist pulled out of the Olympic Women’s gymnastics team-final on July 27 and subsequently the individual all-around final that took place on July 29. It was a decision that sent the world into disbelief.
The vault that Biles competed in the team final before her withdrawal was so off that former Olympic gymnasts stated that Simone was incredibly lucky to land on her feet and that it was remarkable she emerged without a career-ending injury. After the announcement that Biles would not compete in the remainder of the team finals, there was wide speculation that the gymnastic sensation had sustained a physical injury. What later emerged, however, was that Biles stepped away in order to protect her mental health.
“Simone Biles is a person. Not a superhuman, not a robot, and most certainly not a screen for us to project onto. As America’s golden girl and as a global superstar entering these Olympic games, being able to stand up and say “enough” is nothing short of courageous and admirable.”
Biles said that the dangerous vault was the result of the “twisties” – when a gymnast’s mind and body are no longer in dialogue while twisting in the air. The gymnast feels disassociated and completely out of control while trying to complete a skill. The twisties can be life-threatening and are usually the result of high levels of stress and pressure. Simone Biles is a person. Not a superhuman, not a robot, and most certainly not a screen for us to project onto. As America’s golden girl and as a global superstar entering these Olympic games, being able to stand up and say “enough” is nothing short of courageous and admirable. It takes most people years of working in their profession to be able to speak up when they feel their mental or physical health is threatened. But at just 24 years old, Biles – who is a woman of colour in a notoriously white field, and who is a survivor of sexual abuse suffered while training in the very sport in which she excels – was able to do so on the world’s biggest stage. Biles is showing that no matter what age you are, no matter what profession you’re in, no matter what stage you’re on, if you do not feel okay, you can walk away. If the greatest of all time can do it, we can too.
Biles’s decision is part of a wider cultural movement working to destigmatize mental illness which has become particularly prominent during the Covid-19 pandemic. Slowly, young people are emerging at the forefront of a mental health revolution where we are becoming more familiar with recognising the signs of mental illness. We are becoming more comfortable with confiding in one another and more aware when our friends are not themselves. Prominent figures stepping forward and shedding light on the subject just serves to further eliminate any taboo left surrounding the subject. This is particularly significant for Simone Biles as a Black woman, as it is estimated that only one in three Black people experiencing mental health issues with reach out and get appropriate help.
Simone is not the only young athlete to come forward about the reality of mental health. The 23-year-old four-time Grand Slam champion, Naomi Osaka, bowed out of the French Open in June. Osaka explained how she had been suffering with anxiety and depression beginning after beating tennis legend Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open. After Grand Slam officials threatened to expel Osaka from the French open for refusing to participate in news conferences, she decided to withdraw. Black female athletes have been amongst the first to stand up and say that enough is enough. Historically, Black female athletes like Serena Williams and Biles herself have been subjected to relentless body-shaming racism and prejudiced treatment by their sports’ governing bodies. Such conditions make it all the more remarkable that these women are abolishing the “play-through-the-pain” burnout mentality that so many young people today have grown accustomed to.
On August 1, Biles made the decision to step onto the Olympic floor once again to compete in the balance beam final. She returned to competition on her own terms and in her own time. She made the decision, not for her millions of fans or spectators, for herself and by doing so, Simone Biles has forever distinguished herself not for what she has accomplished but for who she is.
These athletes endure constant pressure to win and constant scrutiny when they falter. We put them on pedestals and expect them to deliver time and time again as we hide behind the protection of a screen that shields us from pressure, criticism and strain that we will never understand. However, by prioritizing self-care over self-denial, by sending the message that even the best in the world needs time out, by being brave enough to be true to herself at the very moment the world was watching, Simone Biles wins all of my medals.
Featured photo by Andre Quellet
This article was supported by: STAND Opinion Editor Olivia + Programme Assistant Alex