Before Simone Biles even got on the beam, she was shaking. In the five hours between her morning practice and her Olympic event on Tuesday, she could barely nap. She felt a case of the twisties, or when a gymnast’s body won’t cooperate to perform a trick they’ve done thousands of times.
In the end, she made a decision that would send ripples across the world of sports and spectators: bowing out. By announcing on Wednesday her withdrawal from the individual all-around gymnastics event for her mental health, the world’s most decorated gymnast has forced those watching to reexamine what it means to be athletes and our expectations of them.
The pandemic has disrupted the lives of billions of people, but its effect on top athletes can be overlooked, if not outright dismissed, because of their perceived toughness.
“Athletes are just like the rest of us,” Courtney Walton, a psychologist from the University of Melbourne and the mental health advocacy group Orygen, told VICE World News.
“Many athletes are running on empty already when going into the Olympics, due to the difficulties faced during the last year. This is the exact opposite of what athletes strive for, where they aim to peak both physically [and] also psychologically in time for their event,” he said.
Liz Cambage, a WNBA player from Australia, pulled out of the Olympics a week before the games started, citing the anxiety of being separated from family and friends. Two months before the Olympics, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open to take care of her mental health.
That message appeared to have resonated with many people in a world that used to see mental health issues as something that, unlike a twisted ankle, athletes should overcome as a sign of strength. In 2018, when NBA player DeMar DeRozan tweeted feelings of depression, some were quick to tell him to “snap out of it,” encouraged him to just “smoke some weed,” and to “brush it off.”
Following reports of Biles’ withdrawal, the USA gymnastics team applauded “her bravery in prioritizing her well-being.” Biles’ sponsors have also stood by her, and fans overwhelmingly cheered her on instead of condemning her for failing to perform.
Eric Kussin, former professional sports executive and founder of a mental health advocacy group called We’re All a Little “Crazy,” said it was common for mental health issues to manifest physically in athletes.
“The stress and trauma that builds in our central nervous system over time creates neurobiological changes in our body that changes the rhythm in which our bodies are able to operate,” he said. “So you look at someone like Simone Biles and she’s not able to find herself in the air as she’s spinning—that’s not a surprising thing,” he said
On Monday, Biles mentioned feeling the “weight of the world” on her shoulders. She’s also struggled with certain life difficulties, which aren’t always remembered when the world expects her to perform perfectly, Kussin said.
In 2018, Biles revealed she was sexually abused by former official U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. A year later, her brother was charged in the fatal shooting of three people, which Biles said she had a “hard time processing.” In 2016, medical documents leaked by hackers suggested she was living with ADHD, a condition she took medication for.
Walton, the University of Melbourne psychologist, said that “elite sport has been a space for unrelenting and unhealthy expectations from athletes, coaches, and fans alike, which have likely contributed to worse wellbeing and mental health.”
Hours before the individual all-around gymnastics final, Biles tweeted to acknowledge the outpouring of love and support, saying that “made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”