There will be many extraordinary sporting achievements to remember from the Tokyo Olympics. We are not yet a week into the Games and already we have witnessed performances so brave and brilliant they will be watched over and over again. Adam Peaty. Tom Daley. Momiji Nishiya. Flora Duffy. These are names we won’t forget.
But the Tokyo Olympics will be defined by things other than sport. We are kidding ourselves if we believe otherwise. The build-up was inevitably all about Covid and whether or not the Games should go ahead at all. And now that they are here, we are talking about mental health, specifically the mental health of American gymnast Simone Biles.
Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medallist, withdrew from the women’s team final on Tuesday, saying that she was “not in the right headspace”. And this morning, a statement from USA Gymnastics explained that Biles would not compete in the final individual all-around competition, “in order to focus on her mental health”.
“We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritising her wellbeing,” the statement read. “Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.”
The outpouring of support for the 24-year-old has been immensely heartening. Sport is, quite literally, nothing without its participants and their health is more important than any medal. If that sounds obvious, it hasn’t always been acknowledged. Far from it. One wonders how many other athletes have broken their minds and bodies in pursuit of glory. How many have retired in pain, resentful at what they were forced to endure? And for what? That the world is waking up to this fact, albeit far too late, is something to be celebrated.
By standing up and saying that she is not OK, that she needs support, Biles has done more than perhaps anyone to break this vicious taboo. Other athletes will see what has happened this week in Tokyo and how the world responded, and realise that they too have a right to say: “not today”.
It is worth reflecting on how this Olympic Games has transcended sport. The fact that it is happening at all is testament to the great courage, determination and innovation of the organisers. There were many who said the risk of Covid was too great, that the event should be cancelled. But here we are, enjoying the spectacle. Far from perfect, perhaps, but you need only turn on the television and see the fierce competition to know that Covid will not condemn us. Life will go on. We will, I suspect, look back in years to come and realise that the Tokyo Olympics started the post-pandemic chapter. Tokyo has made sacrifices to succeed – what better way to embody the Olympic spirit.
And now we have Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, withdrawing from the competition, citing concerns about her mental health, and furthering a conversation we have, for far too long, avoided.
These are not the stories we expect from an Olympic Games – but they make it arguably the most important one yet.
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