Simone Biles utilised a luxury on Tuesday night at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre when she pulled herself out of the women’s team final.
With the world watching as she contested what was the first shot at six Olympic golds, Biles took herself out of the competition after a botched vault in the first rotation. The 24-year-old left the arena, came back, put on her white Team USA tracksuit and stood on the periphery of a stage that was supposed to be hers. Her teammates, buoyed by her support and coaching fought for silver behind the Russian Olympic Committee.
At the time, there was one important confusion. Why would Biles pull out? Especially if, as was confirmed halfway through the event, there was no physical ailment. This is Simone Biles. Thirty Olympic and world titles. Four moves named after her. The most recognisable athlete across all sports, in all territories. History in her back pocket and on the tips of her fingers. Flawless. And she just… stopped.
The situation, as she explained, grew uncomfortable in her head and, thus dangerous to her body. The mistake itself came from a lack of confidence brought on by a graver mental unease. One which Biles ceded had been bubbling away since reaching Japan. It has now led her to pull out of Thursday’s all-around final. That might be it for her Tokyo 2020 altogether.
The luxury is that Biles is unquestionable: her worth to the sport, the Olympics as a concept and, over the last four years, society. This is why her decisions made over the last 24 hours are not just groundbreaking but have shifted what we know of sport and life off their previously immovable foundations.
The toll of being the most front-facing driver of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal as a victim herself had been managed by therapy and medication. The remedies to ensure sound mental health when you feel every rough and smooth of being the most in-demand athlete on the planet, let alone at these Games, are harder to come by. She entered wanting to compete for herself yet somehow still found herself doing it for others. “It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people,” she said, holding back the tears.
Her courage to make such a bold call, then explain it with such clarity is rooted in professional contentment. She has nothing left to prove, arriving to these Olympics as the main event, with a global stock that will hold its position for decades.
“There is still more to life than gymnastics,” she said on Tuesday, a statement that speaks of the privilege that she can transcend it all. There has been wave upon wave of support since Tuesday. Her standing in the game and society ensures she can make these calls. Her worth goes beyond the sport, her status bigger than the United States Olympic team.
This, though, is the ultimate example of privilege used for the greater good. Because while Biles is able to divorce herself from such a high-profile competition with so little pushback and so much understanding, vocalising her reasons for doing is currently having a profound effect on how we view athletes and why a culture built around what they “owe” us needs rethinking.
More meaningful was seeing someone so decorated talk about struggle – a reminder to those who struggle that great things are not out of reach. And, more importantly, a lesson to others that those who struggle can also tumble, flip and fly highest seemingly without a care in the world. She might have only been speaking in a mixed zone, but by being Simone Biles, she was addressing the rest of the world. For the first time in a while, she was doing so on her terms.
“We’re old enough to understand what she is going through,” said her USA teammate Jordan Chiles, aged 20, who was stood next to Biles, hug-tight, during Tuesday evening’s press interaction. “Because we’ve all gone through it ourselves in different ways.” Other young girls and boys will also be touched by her words.
It is hard not to take a step back right now and wonder if sport has ever been in this place before. Where teams and athletes are such positive vessels to drive social change, promote inclusivity and change not just how mental health is viewed, but how it should just be accepted as a regular part of human life.
Over the last two months, Naomi Osaka decided the extra commitments that come with Grand Slam tennis were not worth the struggle. The England football team took the knee during the Euros, a gesture that is being carried into the Olympics by Team GB women. Tom Daley, gold medal around his neck, used his press conference to tell the LGBT community that “no matter how alone you feel right now, you are not alone”. Dutch cyclist Tom Dumoulin took silver in the men’s individual time-trial after taking an indefinite break to sort out his mental health earlier this year.
There will be detractors. The usual gaggle of shrills and grifters have taken their ticket for their turn to criticise Biles’s decision and lament the broader reaction as evidence of a world gone soft. Let them stumble into their dead ends when they attempt to extrapolate weakness from anything about her.
The other aspect to all this is how Biles’ mental state directly affects her physical wellbeing. She admitted to not really knowing where she was in the air during her vault, which was enough for her to know the situation was only going to get worse if she stayed in it. “We want to walk out of here, not be dragged out of here on a stretcher,” she said.
But the truth is untouchable. The greatest gymnast there has ever been decided that, for now, two of the gold medals she had won five years ago were not worth defending. That putting her mind and body at risk for the pursuit of glory she had previously dedicated her life towards were risks too far. Only someone of immense moral fibre could find clarity in such a moment.
Simone Biles realised she matters more than gymnastics, the Olympics, and the competitive expectation heaped upon her. And it might be that her greatest accomplishment, indeed her legacy, is that in the space of 24 hours, she showed the rest of the world there is nothing wrong with putting your mental health first. Unlike a lot of what Biles has done, if she can do this, you can too.
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