US gymnastics superstar Simone Biles shocked the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by withdrawing from women’s team and individual all-around contests, in which she was considered a top contender, over what she said were “mental health concerns”.
The 24-year-old has received widespread praise for bringing attention to mental health, dispelling the stigma that remains around the issue, and highlighting the immense pressure put on elite athletes.
National figures, including former US First Lady Michelle Obama, fellow athletes, and commentators have supported the decision taken by Biles, often lauded as the best gymnast of all time.
“[Simone Biles] we are proud of you and we are rooting for you,” Obama wrote on Twitter.
Spanish basketball star and Olympian Pau Gasol said Biles’ decision underscored an important reality: “Mental health is a key component of our health, and it MUST be a priority always”.
“We need the sports world to focus on emotional and mental well-being a lot more,” he wrote on Twitter. “Thank you for using your platform, you are a true champion!”
All my support to @Simone_Biles. Mental health is a key component of our health, and it MUST be a priority always. We need the sports world to focus on emotional and mental well-being a lot more.
Thank you for using your platform, you are a true champion! #MentalHealth pic.twitter.com/4Ym3E9VAEf
— Pau Gasol (@paugasol) July 28, 2021
Sarah Hirshland, US Olympic and Paralympic Committee chief executive officer, Tweeted: “Simone, you’ve made us so proud. Proud of who you are as a person, teammate and athlete.”
“We applaud your decision to prioritize your mental wellness over all else and offer you the full support and resources of our Team USA community as you navigate the journey ahead.”
. @Simone_Biles you’ve pushed boundaries time and time again. Rest up & take time pic.twitter.com/ktAmF0UmAc
— Max Whitlock MBE (@maxwhitlock1) July 28, 2021
Biles, who won four golds at the 2016 Rio Olympics, on Tuesday withdrew from the women’s team competition – in which the best scores of a country’s team in the four main gymnastics events are combined to determine a winner – after an uncharacteristically shaky vault.
She detailed her decision in a post-event press conference.
“At the end of the day, we’re human, too, so we have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,” she said. “With the year that it’s been, I’m really not surprised how it played out.”
we love you and we are with you 🇺🇸 @Simone_Biles
— Coco Gauff (@CocoGauff) July 27, 2021
The US women’s team went on to take silver in the event, with the Russian Olympic Committee team taking gold. On Wednesday, it was announced that Biles would also not compete in the individual all-around event – in which individual athletes are judged cumulatively in all four main events: vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor.
It was not yet announced if Biles would compete in the coming days in the individual events for each of the skills, with the athlete saying she was taking things “day by day”.
Biles has spoken openly about the pressures of being one of the most visible athletes on the US Olympic team.
The revelation that she was one of hundreds of young women abused by former USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar has compounded that public attention.
Several observers have likened Tuesday’s decision to that of tennis star and fellow Olympian Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open in May, citing her mental health and “bouts of depression”.
Following the example of Biles and Osaka, Washington Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg wondered if spectators can change their own expectations of greatness.
“Maybe we fans can learn to embrace more expansive definitions of excellence and courage,” she wrote.
New York Times columnist Lindsay Crouse, meanwhile, wrote that Biles was part of a growing group of young athletes who are taking more agency over their careers and unrealistic public expectations.
“Obviously, everyone wants to win. So it’s exciting that many of these stars are also recognising that being the greatest means knowing your own variable limits and when to push through the pain – and when not to force it,” she wrote.
“How many Olympians have we seen push, persevere and then crumble when the Games are over?”
“These young women and men have extraordinary talent and perform under incredible pressure, but they are not superhuman,” she added. “We have no right to expect them to be.”