Simone Biles arrived in Tokyo with superstar billing and history in her sights. She leaves with her reputation enhanced—not by more gold medals, but by her candid approach to mental health.
The American, gymnastics’ acknowledged GOAT (Greatest Of All Time), provided the shock of the Tokyo Olympics when she abruptly pulled out of the team competition over the “twisties,” a disorientating mental block.
But it could turn out to be one of her most influential moments, with signs that other top athletes are already following her example by prioritizing mental wellbeing over competition.
Biles was widely hailed for her move, unheard-of in the middle of an elite sport competition, with USA Gymnastics offering its full support and Olympics chief Thomas Bach praising her courage. “Who one year ago would have admitted to say (they) have mental health problems?” Bach said.
The four-time champion was sidelined for most of the Games, with her quest for a record-equalling nine career Olympic gold medals largely forgotten.
However, she bravely returned for the final competition, the beam, and took bronze with a solid routine including a double backward somersault, double pike dismount.
This was despite still suffering from the “petrifying” twisties, where gymnasts temporarily lose their ability to orient themselves in mid-air—sometimes resulting in horrendous falls.
“I don’t think you realize how dangerous this is on hard/competition surface nor do I have to explain why I put health first,” she wrote on Instagram. “Physical health is mental health.”
Biles’s actions have been quickly replicated elsewhere, with Olympic champion swimmer Adam Peaty and England cricketer Ben Stokes both announcing breaks for their mental health in recent days.
Diver Shi Tingmao revealed her struggles with depression—a rare admission for a Chinese athlete—after winning gold in Tokyo.
Biles’s struggles are all the more poignant given her aura of invincibility and the ‘GOAT’ tag she had embraced—to the extent of having a goat motif in rhinestones on her leotard.
In other sports, that sort of confidence might risk being perceived as arrogance. Where Biles is concerned, it was more a matter of fact.
This year, Biles had underscored her greatness by becoming the first woman ever to pull off a Yurchenko double pike—a complex, gravity-defying vault that no other woman has attempted in competition.
The mere fact that Biles was returning to defend her title is unusual.
At 24, she would have been the oldest winner of the Olympic all-around crown since Vera Caslavska won the second of her two gold medals in 1968 at the age of 26 years and 171 days. Every winner of the title since 1976 has been a teenager.
She has admitted that last year’s pandemic-induced postponement of the Olympics—and the thought of having to subject her body to another year of punishing workouts to maintain fitness—prompted thoughts of retirement.
“I wanted to give up,” Biles said earlier this year. “Once it was postponed it was, like, I’ve gone too far to give up now.”
Biles says she has also grown in confidence in recent years, often leading criticism of USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee over their handling of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.
In 2018, Biles revealed she was among the hundreds of gymnasts who was sexually abused by Nassar, the former Olympic team doctor who is now serving a life prison sentence for his crimes. Biles has since led calls for USAG and the USOPC to hold a wide-ranging investigation into the scandal.
When USAG tweeted a birthday message to Biles last year, she responded bluntly: “How about you amaze and do the right thing—have an independent investigation.”
Biles says that her position of prominence helps maintain pressure on USAG and the USOPC. “I’m still here, so it’s not going to disappear,” she told Glamour magazine recently. “We have power behind it.” (AFP)