Mental Health in the Olympics: Simone Biles withdrew from individual all-around gymnastics competition at Tokyo Olympics to focus on mental well-being. Here’s what both sides are saying. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
Top Story: Mental Health in the Olympics
Yesterday morning, many Americans who heard their alarm sound and checked the time before trying to steal five more minutes of sleep were instead jolted awake after seeing a surprising push notification. “Simone Biles withdraws from individual all-around gymnastics competition at Tokyo Olympics to focus on mental well-being,” an ESPN alert read at 2:29 am on the East Coast. The decision came just a day after the gymnastics superstar and defending Olympic champion removed herself from the team final following one rotation, on vault. Biles cited her mental health as the reason why when speaking to the media following the competition. Here’s what both sides are saying about Biles’ decision.
On The Right
Right-leaning commentators weren’t entirely shocked by Biles’ announcement. They urge their audience to watch the video of her aerial distortion and highlight her turbulent childhood marked by foster care, bullying, and abuse. There are critics, however, who are included below.
“When You Understand What Happened to Simone Biles, It Makes Sense” Dan McLaughlin, National Review: “Athletes have to walk it off and gut through injuries a lot. That’s true of mental as well as physical problems. But in each case, there are things you can play through, and things you shouldn’t. Once I saw what her actual problem was, I understood. Biles got ‘lost in the air,’ as you can see from [this video]. … Biles essentially fell prey to aerial disorientation – she lost track, in midair, of where the ground was. … Gymnasts, like pilots, can die from that – you land the wrong way, you break your neck. Like a baseball player who suddenly can’t stand in against a pitch, it’s a thing you can’t play through. You might get reoriented in practice, and hopefully Biles will. … Critics piling on her based on the initial press reports should watch what actually happened and listen to veteran gymnasts before lighting her up.”
“Inside Simone Biles’ shocking exit: Anatomy of an Olympics breakdown” Jane Ridley, New York Post: “Here is a look back at all the times Biles has been open about her mental health struggles … Biles was traumatized during her early childhood in Spring, Texas, when her birth mother … became unable to care for her and her three siblings. The foursome went in and out of foster care, but Biles was adopted in 2003 by her loving maternal grandfather and his wife. … As a teen … she developed somewhat bulky muscles. As a result, Biles was bullied at school. … She was [also] treated by a sports psychologist at 16 … In 2016, hackers managed to access Biles’ health records and released unauthorized, previously unknown details about her mental health. They exposed her as having ADHD … In 2018, Biles revealed she was one of the more than 100 female gymnasts who accused team doctor Larry Nassar of molestation. … [Lastly] Biles’ … older brother, was charged in the fatal shooting of three people at a New Year’s Eve party in Cleveland, Ohio. He was ultimately acquitted.”
Piers Morgan, Twitter: “Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport? What a joke. Just admit you did badly, made mistakes, and will strive to do better next time. Kids need strong role models not this nonsense. … Athletes are now deemed more courageous, inspiring, & heroic if they lose or quit then if they win or tough it out, which is ridiculous. I blame Twitter’s virtue-signallers for fuelling this culture of celebrating weakness. The real world doesn’t think like that.”
On The Left
Left-leaning commentators are unanimously supportive of Biles’ decision. They point out how she is only human and that it’s inspiring to see a young woman put herself first. COVID probably played a role, one author writes, and by putting a spotlight on mental health, everyone benefits.
“Simone Biles Just Demonstrated a True Champion Mind-Set” Lindsay Crouse, New York Times: “What kind of champion withdraws at the Olympics? One who can recognize her limits and stop before she crashes into them. … It’s worth remembering: Simone Biles is not a viral gif flipping through your phone. She may be wearing a USA leotard, but she doesn’t work for us. No matter what hopes and dreams we invested in her, she earned her place, and she gets to decide. Athletes, and their physical and mental health, are not commodities. … Ultimately, this is just sports. As Biles herself said after the competition, ‘there’s more to life than gymnastics.’ These young women and men have extraordinary talent and perform under incredible pressure, but they are not superhuman. We have no right to expect them to be.”
“This is the most GOAT thing Simone Biles has ever done” Amy Bass, CNN Opinion: “Of all the GOAT things that Simone Biles has ever done, perhaps looking at the trainer and announcing that she could not continue? That might be the greatest. … on Tuesday in Tokyo, Simone Biles reminded all of us that while she might own four Olympic golds and 25 world medals, making her the most decorated gymnast in history, she is, indeed, human. … To be sure, COVID is not blameless here. COVID prevented training. COVID prevented competition. COVID, as it has for us all, put untold pressures on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of these athletes. … Biles hadn’t competed in 19 months — 587 days. Perhaps most importantly for the Games themselves, COVID prevented the support systems of the athletes from being there, cheering from their seats, providing hugs when needed. … [Biles] will let us know when she is ready.”
“Simone Biles’ withdrawal will make us all winners in the long run” Elizabeth Wellington, The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Not everyone would agree with me. But I’m not going to entertain that negativity. Life is too short, and I’m too excited. Because during what could be considered the most trying Olympics in our modern era, a young woman is choosing herself over the game. … If taking care of yourself means stepping back, then so be it. Being mentally tough for competition does not mean sacrificing your sanity. … Young people finally are feeling empowered to protect themselves. These acts of self-care can be seen as the first step in preserving mental health. … This phenomenon of athletes choosing their well-being over rules and schedules that may not serve them is the Naomi Osaka effect. … Biles’ decision was her own to make. And her team won a silver medal for it. That’s the behavior of a true GOAT.”
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Biles’ decision to withdraw for mental health reasons is part of a pattern that has intensified in recent years. “Michael Phelps, winner of a record 23 gold medals and now retired, has long been open about his own mental health struggles,” Jenna Fryer reports for the Associated Press. “Phelps has said he contemplated suicide after the 2012 Olympics while wracked with depression.” Other athletes have been more vocal about the issue as well, including tennis player Naomi Osaka (who withdrew from the French Open), Dutch cyclist Tom Dumoulin, and Liz Cambage, an Australian WNBA player who pulled out of the Olympics a week before they opened due to anxiety over entering a controlled COVID bubble.
Speaking of COVID-related mental health issues, the pandemic has taken a major toll on many people outside the world of sports as well. This is especially true for teenage girls. According to the CDC, the national average of weekly emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts among those aged 12 to 17 jumped nearly 40 percent in February and March, compared to two years prior. Emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts by boys rose 3.7 percent — but jumped nearly 51 percent for girls.
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