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Athletics are regarded as one of the most wholesome, praise-worthy pursuits out there. Tapping into an innate physical skill, putting in the work to master a discipline, and then pursuing glory for yourself, your team, and your country is the stuff of legends. Society celebrates the success of its athletes, idolizes their work ethic and superhuman talents, and — particularly during the Olympic Games — holds onto their triumphs as its own.
But what happens when athletes are not just celebrated but pressured? What happens when they are held on such high pedestals and believed in so fervently that fans don't just root for wins, but demand them. As a quote now widely circulated on social media (based on an original quote from NBA player Earl Boykins) proclaims: "Pressure makes diamonds but bursts pipes."
Gymnast Simone Biles was the anointed diamond of the Tokyo Olympic Games. But now, it's becoming clear that under enough pressure, even diamonds have the potential to crack.
It'd be hard to miss the saga unfolding around Biles at the Tokyo Olympics. The 24-year-old has notably been called the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) over and over and over again, and for good reason: She earned five Olympic medals (four golds and one bronze) at the 2016 Rio Olympics, a whopping 25 World Championship medals (19 gold), and four record-breaking skills dubbed in her namesake. But in a shocking turn of events, she stepped down from the gymnastics team finals on Tuesday and withdrew from the individual all-around finals as well. (She still has the opportunity to compete in the individual event finals starting Sunday night, though it's unclear whether or not she'll participate.)
Biles made the call to withdraw after she uncharacteristically missed her vault during the first rotation in the team finals. Instead of performing an Amanar (with two and a half twists), she only spun one and a half times, still landing on her feet but appearing disoriented. Teammates Sunisa Lee and Jordan Chiles then had to step into her place competing in the floor exercise (for Lee) and on the uneven bars and balance beam (for Chiles).
USA Gymnastics then tweeted an official statement saying Biles withdrew from the competition due to "a medical issue," but Biles later clarified that it wasn't physical. The next day, she told the TODAY Show, "Physically, I feel good, I'm in shape... Emotionally, that kind of varies on the time and moment. Coming here to the Olympics and being the head star isn't an easy feat, so we're just trying to take it one day at a time and we'll see." (Just a couple days before competition, Biles said she felt like "the weight of the world" was on her shoulders.) USA Gymnastics later confirmed her withdrawal from the individual all-around, as well, this time making it clear that the decision was based on Biles' mental health. "After further medical evaluation, Simone Biles has withdrawn from the final individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games, in order to focus on her mental health. Simone will continue to be evaluated daily to determine whether or not to participate in next week's individual event finals," said USA Gymnastics in a statement.
Yes, Simone Biles, one of the greatest gymnasts in history, took a mental health day on one of the most important days of her athletic career.
Of course, the news of Biles' initial withdrawal from the team event sent the internet into a frenzy, and for every celebrity, athlete, and fan supporting Biles' decision and applauding her leadership and courage, there was a hater with some harsh words. Some replies to USA Gymnastics' tweet, for example, criticized Biles for being a "shame to the country," and a "selfish quitter."
One Twitter user went so far as to say "It's a good lesson for the kids out there. When things get difficult and stressful, the best option is to quit. Soon enough everyone will be using the 'mental wellbeing' thing as an excuse. This country is losing its hard-working, fighting, competitive edge." Another user responded with "all I'm saying is that if I don't show up for work due to mental health reasons, then I'm fired and don't have a job anymore." The tweet has more than 250 likes as of press time.
But it wasn't only the trolls behind a screen who attacked Biles for her decision. British journalist Piers Morgan wrote an op-ed on the subject for the Daily Mail, and the headline speaks for itself: "Sorry Simone Biles, but there's nothing heroic or brave about quitting because you're not having 'fun' — you let down your teammates, your fans, and your country."
And, yes, there are a few arguments to consider. First, by stepping down once already at the Olympics, Biles is theoretically taking the spot where another U.S. gymnast could have competed and realized their own Olympic dreams. (Of course, it's not a 1:1 comparison; there are also skill levels and qualifying rounds to take into account, but the sentiment still has value.) Second, by stepping back to take care of her own mental health, Biles inadvertently put Chiles and Lee in incredibly stressful positions. The two athletes weren't able to formally warm-up, since they hadn't planned to perform those routines, and only got about 30 seconds on each event space before competing on the world's biggest stage. Despite the turn of events, though, the team went on to win the silver medal in the team finals, about 3.5 points behind the Russia Olympic Committee.
Chiles remained upbeat in interviews afterward, telling media in a news conference, "When I was told that I had to put my grips on, I was just like O-M-G... Those were definitely some big shoes that I had to fill and I'm very happy that I was able to do that ... I was able to show the world that not only can you fill amazing people's shoes but we also did this together as well," according to Reuters.
The stress was more apparent in Lee's candid response. "We were all so stressed," she admits at the conference. "We honestly didn't know in that moment. She's freaking Simone Biles... She carries the team basically. When we kind of had to step up to the plate and do what we had to do, it was very hard and stressful, but I'm very proud of us because we did that."
While Biles' actions absolutely added more weight to her teammates' shoulders, if she had instead broken an ankle or suffered some other physical ailment that rendered her unable to compete, the situation would be the same: a teammate would step up and take her place. The team was prepared for this possibility (heck, sidelining injuries have happened in plenty of Olympic sports history, including gymnastics), and the process to move forward is the same.
But critics don't look at this as a physical injury. Would Biles be the target of so much negativity if her cause for stepping back from the competition was instead a shattered tibia or dislocated shoulder? Would cowards cry "weakness" if she refused to tumble on a broken body? I don't think so.
Here's the thing: In gymnastics, your mental game is arguably more important than your physical ability. While this could be said for many sports, there's an intense mind-body connection required to do even the simplest gymnastic skill that, if severed or compromised, can turn you into your own biggest opponent. A mental block can stall you mid-air, sending you crashing down onto your head, neck, or other body part with no one and nothing to catch you. Biles stepping away from the competition to take care of her mental health is more than just "feeling too much pressure" or "not wanting to make a mistake" or even "not feeling like it." When you're upside down 15 feet in the air, that mental disconnect is really about how much damage you could do with one misstep. "I just don't trust myself as much as I used to," Biles told reporters in Tokyo, according to CNN. "I'm a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics." And when you're competing at an elite level like Biles, those nerves can literally be deadly.
Take another look at the video from the Amanar vault gone wrong. While flipping and spinning at a breakneck speed 25 feet above the ground, Biles says she completely "lost" sense of where she was in the air.
This is a little (scary) something that gymnasts call the twisties; it's a "mysterious phenomenon" in which "suddenly a gymnast is no longer able to do a twisting skill she's done thousands of times before," writes Elle Reeve, a former gymnast, for CNN. "Your body just won't cooperate, your brain loses track of where you are in the air. You find out where the ground is when you slam into it." And the twisties aren't some fear you can muscle through; gymnasts sometimes need to relearn skills from scratch to reconnect the dots where their mind-body connection has gone haywire.
While talking to the media after withdrawing from the team finals, Biles explained she experienced the twisties in practice that morning and was shaky for hours after. Ultimately, when that first vault went awry, she made the call in the name of her own health — not just to avoid a blown hamstring or broken bone but to avoid a potentially life-threatening injury — and haters have no ground to criticize her for that.
Just look at the cautionary tale of Soviet gymnast Elena Mukhina, who broke her neck and was paralyzed as a result while attempting the Thomas salto (a skill that's now banned because of the risks) during training for the 1980 Olympics, according to The New York Times. The thing is, she had previously told her coach she was worried she would break her neck doing the Thomas salto, but later said didn't feel like she could refuse to perform the skill in competition, according to the Times.
A Twitter user backed up Biles' decision with a personal and harrowing example: "As someone who did a vault while having the twisties, resulting in temporary paralysis, a 3-week hospital stay, months of physical therapy, and a toll to my mental health, I couldn't be more proud of @Simone_Biles decision, even on the world's biggest stage."
And plenty of noteworthy gymnasts have also praised her choice: U.S. gymnast Keri Strug, who famously competed in the vault on a broken ankle and went on to secure a gold medal for the team in the 1996 Olympics, tweeted her support, as did Dominique Moceanu, who shared a video of her own balance beam mishap during the same Olympics wrote, "I was 14 y/o w/ a tibial stress fracture, left alone w/ no cervical spine exam after this fall. I competed in the Olympic floor final minutes later. @Simone_Biles 🤍 decision demonstrates that we have a say in our own health—'a say' I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian."
Strug's infamous vault has since gone down in history as an act of heroism. But why, exactly, do we praise our top athletes for competing at the expense of their health — or make them feel like they have no other option? Why have we glorified pushing through pain and prized winning above the lives of athletes themselves? If these examples within gymnastics aren't resonating, look no further than the concussion epidemic in American football; the sport refuses to make sweeping and much-needed changes even after pervasive concussion-related deaths and long-term health implications persist — all while the industry rakes in billions of dollars every season.
And though Biles may have drawn a clear boundary in these Games, she's certainly not immune to the pressures. In fact, she's competed multiple times with injuries of her own. In 2018, she competed in (and won) the U.S. National Championship with broken toes on both feet, and a few months later, won the World Championship with a kidney stone, according to Sports Illustrated. Not to mention that she competed and triumphed at the 2016 Rio Olympics, taking home four gold medals, all while being sexually abused by team doctor Larry Nassar.
What's more, none of this even acknowledges the last year and a half of a global pandemic wreaking havoc on life as the world knew it — including the training schedule of every single Olympic athlete. That, and layer on a reckoning of racial injustice within the U.S., of which Biles has been an outspoken activist. (See: Simone Biles Opened Up About One of Her First Experiences with Racism)
So, to address anyone calling Biles' acts during the Olympics selfish: Sure, being part of a team — and representing your country at the top of your field — comes with a certain amount of self-sacrifice in order to be a true "team player." But if there's anything we know about female athletes (and all womxn, for that matter), it's that they need to look out for themselves, because who else will? Think that sounds cynical? Reminder: More than 150 women suffered at the hands of Nassar; they were not protected. Paralympic athletes and female athletes are paid less than their male and able-bodied counterparts because society's decision-makers refuse to compensate them accordingly. Pregnant athletes (such as Allyson Felix) aren't being treated differently (read: worse) by their sponsors because of their choice to have children. So, yeah, you can blame Biles for not being a "team player" and not representing the country in the way that you, someone sitting on the couch watching her for your entertainment, may want, but take a moment to reflect on whether you and the capitalist, patriarchal, inherently racist systems you may benefit from have ever done enough to stand up for these athletes.
Biles standing up for herself and her health isn't selfish nor weak. She's doing so to pave the way for women (athletes or otherwise) and marginalized communities — especially women of color, who themselves face the most discrimination — to feel they can stand up for themselves when so much of the outside world exists to take advantage of them. Not only is Biles making an important statement about why we need to take care of our athletes' mental health, but she's also taking back control, as if to say, "I won't do this for you. If I do it, I'm doing it for me," so that future generations will feel they do have a say — in the face of abusers, coaches, and toxic power figures of all kinds.
And while, yes, athletic prowess certainly adds to her legend, THIS is the stuff that GOATs are truly made of.