Tuesday, Simone Biles, who few dispute to be the greatest gymnast in the history of the sport, did not understand everything. She had the lowest score among the American team athletes in the first rotation. She briefly left the floor with a trainer, then returned in her tracksuit, indicating that she was done for the day. USA Gymnastics then circulated a statement that Biles was withdrawing from team competition “due to a medical problem”. The statement said she would be “assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions.”
Soon after, Biles clarified it in tears at a press conference: There were no physical injuries – she withdrew, she said, because the pressure had become too much. strong. “I was just, like, shaking, I could barely take a nap. I’ve never felt like this before competing before, ”said Biles. “And I tried to go out here and have fun. The warm-up in the back went a little better. But once I got out here I was like, No the mind is not there so I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself. She said she had “a few twisties,” a kind of mental block that could cause a gymnast to lose control of their body if they don’t keep track of how many twists they’ve already performed. In a sport all about awareness and control, having neither is a dangerous thing.
On Wednesday there was another update: USA Gymnastics announced that Biles will not be competing in Thursday’s all-around – a competition she hasn’t lost since 2013. These are extraordinary moves from an athlete who , at 24, has already revolutionized the sport and was considered manifest perfection. For Biles to say the pressure was too great is unprecedented. It’s also a stunning rationale for how conversations about mental health have evolved over the past decade.
We have seen powerful and significant changes in the way mental health is discussed in the public sphere. Newsrooms now have dedicated resources to cover mental health crises and have changed style guides to tackle stigma; celebrities have been outspoken about their struggles and invited the rest of us to join them; and employers learn to adapt to the mental health needs of their employees. As a result, awareness of how mental health affects us increases and there is a common lexicon for how to talk about it.
This lexicon appears throughout Biles’ statement. “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” she said at the press conference, and that’s the kind of statement she can say now because efforts to de-stigmatize talk about anxiety are, in fact, working. Biles has faced criticism for her removal, but she has also received a wave of support for sharing what she is going through.
She’s not the only one: Biles said she was inspired by tennis player Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from Roland Garros in May because of the organization’s insistence that Osaka gives press conferences which she says “sows doubt” in her mind and harms her mind. health.
Yet what these movements of Biles and Osaka also reveal are the limitations of focusing solely on stigma. You can only solve the problem by simply naming it. Osaka has been consistent in its position that the press conference format is an exploitation, benefiting only tennis organizations that could benefit from a star’s presence for television time and, therefore, advertising sales.
Meanwhile, Biles openly declared his contempt for USA Gymnastics, an organization that has been failing for years. “At the end of the day, I don’t represent USA Gymnastics,” Biles told The New York Times last month. And why should she? American gymnasts, Biles included, have denounced the organization’s failures to protect athletes following the Larry Nassar abuse scandal.
Much has changed since America last fell in love with Biles at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Three weeks after the Olympics ended, the first of many reports about Nassar’s abuse broke. Biles told Vogue last year that during this time she became depressed. “At one point I slept so much because for me it was the closest thing to death without hurting myself,” she said. Then, in 2018, Biles spoke publicly about being one of the hundreds of women abused by Nassar. “Please believe me when I say it was much harder to say those words out loud at first than it is now to put them on paper,” she said. tweeted.
At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Biles is Nassar’s only survivor on the U.S. women’s team. For USA Gymnastics, she is the key to overcoming the scandal. There is nothing wrong if you always win medals, right? But she is also arguably the biggest star of all American Olympians. And the pressure to look like she’s over her trauma is high. She told Vogue that “[she] I just felt like this was what America wanted [her] to be — was perfect. Because every time an American wins the Olympics, you are like America’s sweetheart. So it’s like, How could this happen to America’s sweetheart? “She said she” felt [she] let others down by it.
So yes, there is pressure. There is anxiety. It’s a relief that Biles can say that. It is to break down barriers that she can tell us that she prioritizes her mental health and that we can understand and celebrate her. But we’ve also learned that tackling mental health stigma can’t get us far. USA Gymnastics has yet to define its plan to resolve its issues.
Biles hasn’t said much on social media since stepping back. But early Wednesday, she retweeted a screenshot from a statement by an anonymous gymnast who defended her decision and expressed her anger at those who questioned her tenacity. “We are talking about the same girl who was assaulted by her team doctor throughout her childhood and adolescence,” the statement said. He denounced “the joke of an organization that has protected its predator instead of her and her teammates for years”. For someone as watched and thoughtful as Biles, the retweet spoke volumes.
Among all of Biles’ supporters were two notable names from the 1996 US Olympic gymnastics team, also known as “The Magnificent Seven”. Dominique Moceanu, who was 14 when she was injured, tweeted that Biles demonstrates that “we have a say in our own health– “a word” that I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian. “