Simone Biles has won four Olympic gold medals and 25 world medals. She regularly completes routines too difficult for other athletes to attempt. But with the world watching the Summer Games in Tokyo, the conversation turned from Biles’ athletic ability to her humanity.
After one vault, the 24-year-old gymnast withdrew from the Olympic team competition on Tuesday. The moment shocked sports fans across the world and fostered a nearly unprecedented discussion about athletes’ mental health, the risks of injury and the stress of competition.
Early Wednesday, it was announced by USA Gymnastics that Biles would not participate in the individual all-around competition, which begins Thursday. Friday, the organization announced Biles would not compete in the individual vault or bars finals, per ESPN. She will instead “focus on her mental well-being,” according to ESPN.
Why did Simone Biles withdraw from the competition?
Biles’ competition ended Tuesday night after one vault. During practice and again during competition, the gymnast stumbled in her vault routine, reported ESPN. After almost landing on her knees, Biles left the stadium with her trainer.
After the competition, Biles spoke more about the reasons for her withdrawal and the importance of her mental state while competing.
“I had to do what’s right for me and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” Biles said, according to ESPN. “That’s why I decided to take a step back and let (my teammates) do their work.”
“I usually persevere and push through things,” Biles said, per The Washington Post. “But not to cost the team a medal.”
“I tried to go out and have fun,” the gymnast said, per ESPN. “But once I came out, I was like, ‘No. My mental is not there.’”
For many, the mental health withdrawal came as a surprise — but not to Biles. “With the year that it’s been, I’m really not surprised how it played out,” she said, per The Washington Post.
Barry Svrluga, a sports columnist for The Washington Post, said we should have seen this coming.
“Sports are a joy until they’re a job, and the sum of it all — the work, the hype, the hope, the standard, the expectation — can easily be too much,” he wrote. “Mix in the special sauce of a pandemic and the country’s racial reckoning, and collapse should be more predictable.”
What does Biles’ withdrawal say about mental health in gymnastics?
For Biles, being at the top of her game mentally is as important as being at the top of her game physically. According to ESPN, the gymnast regularly performs routines so dangerous and difficult that a mistake could lead to “catastrophic injury.”
“You have to be there 100%,” the gymnast said, per ESPN. “If not, you get hurt.”
Biles, who had an uncharacteristically shaky vault on Tuesday, made the physical risks of even her less-difficult routines clear. Without fully believing in herself, Biles did not want to continue competing — for her sake and for her teammates' sakes. The Olympian reached her limit under the strain of “doubt, fear, insecurities, pressure, failure.”
She has been hinting at this. On Monday, Biles shared her struggle on Instagram, saying “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”
All of this led to what happened on Tuesday when “Biles responded by doing something gymnasts have been calling upon their sport to do for them for years: place athlete health and well-being ahead of gold medals,” according to ESPN.
What does Biles’ withdrawal say about the culture of gymnastics?
Undeniably, Biles has shaped the sport she loves. The culture of gymnastics has greatly changed since the last Summer Olympics, reported ESPN. For the USA Gymnastics organization, these Games have come with a tumultuous backdrop.
In 2018, former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was criminally convicted of sexual abuse after hundreds of women came forward with allegations against him, reported USA Today. The scandal — and investigations of it — have permeated the sport. Biles is a survivor of Nassar’s abuse and an ongoing advocate for accountability and answers, reported ESPN.
After the allegations against Nassar first surfaced, “I was very depressed,” Biles shared, per The Independent last year. “It was a really dark time.” During that time, Biles came to the realization that she had been sexually abused — a reality she did not initially want to admit to herself. Afterward, the star gymnast began sharing her story publicly on social media.
“If there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport they would’ve just brushed it to the side,” Biles said, per USA Today, earlier this year. But “stuff doesn’t just blow over.”
When the Olympics were delayed, “I felt kind of torn and broken,” Biles said per The Independent, partially because the delay meant “another year of dealing with USAG.”
“Who’s to say, too, what impact the turmoil at USA Gymnastics might have had on Biles’s decision Tuesday night?” wrote Svrluga in The Washington Post.
Biles has spoken previously about being a “voice for change” in the wake of the scandal, per USA Today.
The legendary gymnast's decision to withdraw Tuesday seemed to remind everyone of the cultural shift taking place within the sport — a shift toward putting the athletes first.
Is the Olympic journey over for Simone Biles?
Biles decided a day after withdrawing from the team competition to also not compete in the individual all-around, where she would have defended her Olympic title.
USA Gymnastics said “Biles will be evaluated before deciding if she will participate in next week’s individual events,” according to ESPN.
Regardless of what her future holds, Biles has left her mark on the sport she loves. In choosing not to compete, she has reminded us of athletes’ humanity.
“I love and admire Simone Biles and our Olympians,” tweeted Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, Tuesday evening. “I take pride in them, not so much for the medals they win as for the grace, humanity and character of their hearts.”