Simone Biles arrived in Tokyo as the face of the Olympic Games, the greatest gymnast of all time and the overwhelming favourite to win multiple gold medals for the United States. But something happened on the way to the podium.
Biles, 24, pulled out from competition for five of her six finals. The leading lady of her sport, one of the biggest stars in all of sport, in essence, quit, in the middle of the Olympics, the world’s biggest sports stage.
Biles’ shocking exit was one of those jaw-dropping moments in sports history, and few people knew exactly what to make of it. Biles was not injured. In fact, she had qualified for the finals on all four apparatus, team and individual all-around, a potential six medals, potentially all gold.
USA Gymnastics issued a statement proclaiming that Ms Biles’ withdrawal following her vault rotation was due to an unspecified “medical issue” and she would “be assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions.”
Biles then hinted that she was dealing with increased pressure and potential mental health challenges, writing on social media: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”
She later said she was suffering from the twisties which can cause gymnasts to lose their sense of space and dimension as they’re in the air, causing them to lose control of their body.
The twisties are dangerous because you do not always know where the floor is so you can land the wrong way, causing serious injuries. However, a look at the Biles withdrawal timeline throws doubt on whether she really had the twisties. On 27 July, the day Biles cited mental health concerns for her withdrawal, she did not mention anything about the twisties. On 28 July she said she was withdrawing from the all-around competition but didn’t mention anything about the twisties. On 29 July Biles did not say or write anything in public. Only on 30 July, three days after her sudden decision to walk away, did Biles write on social media that she was suffering from the twisties.
Why did Biles not mention the twisties on the day of her pullout announcement? Or the day after, or the day after that? A good guess would be because she never had the twisties at that time in the first place.
If she indeed had the twisties, she would have said so from the start. She didn’t.
If it’s true Biles did not have the twisties, what did she have? Another good guess is that during those three days, she was blasted so hard on US conservative media and in circles on social media for retreating that she had to come up with an explanation other than mental health. Mental pain, she and her entourage might have surmised, was not seen as a good enough reason for her walkout.
Good guess No 3 is that Biles got cold feet. She choked. She felt or knew she would not do well in Tokyo. Biles was shaky while performing a vault and stumbled in front of the world’s cameras as she landed. If we agree to take the twisties out of the equation, Biles might have been unsteady because she was not mentally ready to perform well. She felt she would have a hard time winning gold and that would not do because this is an athlete who rarely wins any lesser pieces of metal (a career total of four golds and seven Olympic medals in all).
It’s completely normal for an athlete to feel he or she will not do well in a match before it starts, or in the middle of it, or at its end, especially if they are losing. But it is completely abnormal for a player to decide not to play at all, or drop out in mid-game, just because the vibes are not right. It is not okay if Biles intentionally dropped out because she feared tarnishing her image and legacy if she did not perform up to the lofty expectations the global public expects from her.
That’s what Biles looks like she did and she was pummeled for it. “Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport? What a joke,” Piers Morgan, the former British TV host, tweeted. “Just admit you did badly, made mistakes, and will strive to do better next time. Kids need strong role models not this nonsense.”
Ben Maller, an American sports radio host: “The sports world has reached a crooked crossroads where an athlete like Simone Biles now receives more profound acclaim for literally quitting a competition than she would have if she had actually won a medal.”
The script has flipped. We are constantly telling our children to never give up, to always keep trying and if they don’t succeed, lift themselves up and try again until they do succeed.
Now what do we tell them? It’s okay to walk away from something that’s too difficult to do? What do we tell our children who play sports or do anything else when they say “I don’t want to do this anymore?” Should we say “fine, don’t pressure yourself. Go watch TV or play on your mobile instead?”
In a press conference after her walk-off led to a silver medal for the USA, Biles said, “There is more to life than just gymnastics.”
That’s true, but until that time comes for other things in life, Biles is a gymnast. That is her job and she gets paid for it – in seven figures when you include corporate sponsors.
You don’t need a wild imagination to see where this is going. Anybody who has trouble doing anything in life can always point to mental anxiety as the explanation. A child not doing well at school? Mental health. Not doing well in university? Mental health. Doing badly at work? Mental health. Marital problems? Mental health.
It’s not easy to question those who declare they suffer from mental health issues. We normally can’t say whether the issues are major or minor and to what degree, nor is it easy to prove or disprove them. Biles, for example, did not present a note from a psychiatrist. We must take her word that she was suffering from some sort of anxiety.
But an elite athlete dropping out in this manner is extremely rare (boxer Roberto Duran’s ‘no mas’ and the mysterious no-show in the final of the 1998 World Cup by the Brazilian Ronaldo are two such exceptional occurrences). Duran and Ronaldo were missing in action in pivotal matches, the antithesis of what elite athletes should be, blighting their otherwise sterling names and careers.
Biles’ decision was not the first of its kind. Last month, tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, in part to avoid the social anxiety she said she experiences when forced to speak with reporters. Osaka is the world’s highest paid female athlete yet refused to attend mandatory post-match press conferences in Paris for fear of answering very easy questions, especially if she lost.
Osaka and Biles are sending the new generation the wrong message: If you are feeling the pressure, just walk away. They are giving tacit permission to any competitor at any level in any sport that it is OK to quit.
Of course, there are mental health problems, some very serious. Pressure is put on top-tier athletes to compete hard and succeed at almost any cost. But that is sports. At its core the issue is really bigger than Simone Biles. It gets down to the very bedrock of athletic competition. Sports are designed to test the resolve of those who choose to compete. An athlete would be eviscerated if he or she left in the middle of a make-or-break game because of mental stress or anxiety. The pressure to win has always been an integral part of sports. It’s what sports is all about. There is constant pressure to perform. If your goal is to win, you must perform better than everyone else.
Biles’ struggles with a mental block were one of the biggest talking points in Japan and she was lauded by many for her decision not to continue. Athletes, many said, need to take care of themselves. They talked about the stigma of perceived weakness related to mental health concerns and that athletes should be encompassing mental health as well as physical health. The mantra should be that it’s okay not to be okay. We charge everything: our phones, cars, laptops. We also must charge our brains because of the pressure.
Biles brought pressure onto herself by labeling herself as the GOAT, the ‘Greatest Of All Time’, on her leotard. Indeed she is the best. Biles is so good she has official gymnastic moves named after her. She is the most skilled gymnast ever. In Tokyo, she needed to continue to show how great she really is.
“I have to do what’s right for me. It’s OK sometimes to sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself,” Biles said.
Is it? The immediate result from Biles’ walkout was that the US team didn’t earn gold in the event for the first time since 2010.
Any Olympics is a microcosm of the world it reflects. There was a time -- around three weeks ago -- when grit and determination were celebrated. You sacrificed everything for the team, for your fans, for your country. Not anymore. Now you’re a ‘hero’ for not finishing what you started because you didn’t feel like it in Tokyo.
Is it now socially acceptable to give up? Is this the new normal?
There is no shame in losing, in giving something your very best shot and failing. There is, however, much shame in not even trying.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly