Olympian Simone Biles just did something, by not doing something

Yesterday, Simone Biles shocked the entire nation, and a significant segment of the world, by voluntarily removing herself from the gymnastics team competition in the 2020 (or is it the 2021?) Tokyo Olympic Games.  Biles’ reason for withdrawing from the competition was not a physical injury.  She revealed that her rationale for removing herself was due to a struggle with mental health.

As a four time gold medalist, Biles arrived in Tokyo with top billing as the star of American gymnastics (if not the entire Olympic delegation) and a clear expectation for more victories.  Americans expect their stars to deliver,  and there will no doubt be critics who lament her absence from the team competition as ‘weak’ or letting down her teammates and the nation.  However, I’m not in that crowd.  Simone Biles doesn’t deserve the criticism and there are several reasons I’m okay with her decision.

Mental health problems or mental stress inhibit the ability to perform, just like physical injuries

No one would expect Biles or any athlete to compete with a physical injury.  Why should this be any different?  Critics might argue that physical injuries and mental stress are not the same type of problem.  Even if I accepted that line of reasoning, I would argue that mental health problems are worse.  When physically injured or hurt, there are a select few athletes who find ways to mentally block out the pain of persevere through those injuries.  But it is the mind which allows them to push beyond their limits.  A person with an unhealthy mind cannot push through.

Would anyone criticize Biles for ‘letting her team down’ if she had a broken ankle?  Of course not.  We wouldn’t expect her to attempt vaults.  Our nation would understand that an athlete could not perform at her best level, and an attempt to compete when not healthy would be detrimental to the team.  The women’s team event ended with a silver medal for America, and there’s no shame in that.  What would have happened if Biles attempted to perform without a healthy mind?  The team might not have medaled.  This is one of the reasons Olympic squads carry alternates, for situations such as this.

Biles experiences a stress level high, even for Olympic standards

Simone Biles is 24 years old, and while we see her as a grown woman, this is still a relatively young age.  Since her amazing performance in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Biles has been one of the most well known American athletes.  She has endorsement deals with Kellogg’s, Nike, Hershey, United Airlines, and Beats by Dre, to name a few.  Biles competes at the highest level in the difficult and demanding world of gymnastics.  She has often stated that in middle school and high school, other students would ridicule and mock her about her body, which caused body image issues she struggled to overcome.  (Biles is only 4’ 8” and female gymnasts often have a body shape atypical when compared to other women.)  Additionally, Biles experienced trauma as a young girl when she was sexually abused by the now disgraced Larry Nasser.

Perhaps we should applaud Simone Biles for making it this far in life without experiencing a major breakdown of some kind.  As an athlete performing at the elite level in the most revered worldwide sporting competition, one would face enough stress.  But Americans add additional expectation.  We are a nation fo winners and expect nothing but the absolute best in every field of endeavor.  Biles is the face of American Olympics this year, and so many of the people will be disappointed, but they shouldn’t be.  How would any of us perform any task on the world stage?  Probably not as well as we might like to think.

Simone Biles’ actions might end up being the most important thing she could do in the sports world

When a top tier athlete admits that they, too, feel the stress and the weightiness of mental health problems, it gives others permission to admit they have a problem.  Society still has a stigma which sees mental health illnesses as only affecting the weak, establishing a self-loathing attitude that people internalize.  Those affected by mental illness also wrong believe they are somehow to blame, or incompetent or otherwise ‘less than.’ 

Biles’ actions in admitting her mental health was the reason for withdrawing from competition will impact others struggling with some form of mental illness.  She also displayed profound wisdom, commenting, “There’s more to life than just gymnastics.”  This statement might annoy some of her critics, but I believe it’s one of the most significant things she could have said.

By prioritizing her mental health, Biles is letting people know that her identity is not, and cannot be dictated by athletics.  The ‘win at all costs’ mentality that Americans have come to love takes a toll on people, and Biles appears to either have wise counsel or has learned that her time as an athlete are limited.  She’s also not alone.

In the spring of 2021, tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the prestigious French Open, also citing mental health as an issue.  She later provided more context, noting she suffered from anxiety and periodic bouts of depression.  

Mental illness nearly broke Michael Phelps, the record setting American swimmer who won 23 gold medals.  Bouts of depression, substance abuse, extreme instances of self-isolation, and thoughts of suicide plagued Phelps while he was winning gold medals in five different Olympic Games.  When the world was celebrating Phelps, he was experiencing the lowest points of his life.  Winning isn’t always enough, and it turns out there’s more to life than swimming.

Maybe someone will read this, and bring up the more vicious mental toughness of athletes.  Last year, we all waxed nostalgic about The Last Dance, the documentary about the Chicago Bulls in their sixth and final title run in the Michael Jordan years.  Critics of Biles might look at Jordan and say, “Now that’s how you deal with the stress.”  It’s pretty clear that basketball was (and may still be) the most important thing in Michael Jordan’s life.  And he received his reward.

Personally, watching Michael Jordan in that documentary series made me feel sorry for him.  He’s perpetually living in the 1990s.  For Jordan, nothing was more important than winning basketball games.  But look at the cost.  A huge swath of people who played with and against Jordan can’t stand him.  Jordan was cruel to a number of teammates and competitors in the NBA.  Sure, it might have helped him achieve the results he wanted.  Yet, there are more important things than sports.  How a person achieves those ends matters in this life.  

Simone Biles’ actions give the world a rare glimpse into the vulnerability of an athlete.  Typically, this is seen as a weakness.  Technically, it is a weakness.  It’s precisely what the world needs to see because the rest of us are weak, too.  We don’t want to admit it, and we definitely don’t want our heroes to admit it. But Biles did the right thing, for herself, her team, the nation, and the world.

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