Simone Biles withdraws from team and individual all-around competitions at the Tokyo Olympics
Updated: Jan 28
I've been wanting to write something about the celebrated U.S gymnast Simone Biles and her dramatic exit from the team and individual all-around finals since she withdrew from the competition on Tuesday.
However, I wasn’t sure that it was right to comment when we don’t know exactly why she’s pulled out, and I’ve therefore hesitated before adding this post today.
I’ve been waiting for an explanation and have been reading all the different opinions in the press, and although there’s been much documented, I have to admit – I’m still confused and bewildered, and I’m really not sure what to make of it all!
Two distinct opinions
There seems to be a divide amongst people and their takes on what we are witnessing in professional sport at the current time, with two distinct camps of opinion forming.
There are those who staunchly jump to Simone’s defence and defend her right to ‘protect her wellbeing’ and withdraw from the competition, and then there are those who accuse her of ‘having her Olympic cake and eating it too’, since she may still compete in the individual finals next week.
There is an argument that the mental aspect is all part of the sport and although people should certainly prioritise their mental well-being, coping with expectation and pressure is something that all champions have to deal with, along with injury, defeat, loss, scrutiny and criticism - it kind of goes with the territory.
An article I read in The Telegraph yesterday said that:
“In the case of Biles, those who argue that mental hardship deserves to be treated as seriously as physical injury in sport are now at logger heads with opponents who insist that coping with the mental pressure comes with the territory at the very top.”
I’m still not sure where my own opinion lies in all of this, and I think that’s because the distinction between mental health, mental illness, pressures of competing at the highest level, and normal feelings and emotions, simply isn’t being made.
This is confusing EVERYONE including the athletes themselves, and the point desperately needs clearing up so that the likes of Biles (and recently Osaka in tennis) don’t miss out on a chance of competing because they’ve mistaken mental ‘health’ for a legitimate crisis of confidence or anxiety.
Mental ‘health’: a very loose term!
I’ve mentioned this before but there’s a distinction between mental health and mental illness that just isn’t being made which is confusing people time and again.
Mental ‘health’ is a very loose term which doesn’t really mean anything. I think people are using it to describe mental ‘well-being’ rather than the more serious and stigmatised mental illness which people are still very reluctant to say.
The problem is that; how does mental ‘health’ or well-being, differ from normal emotions and feelings?
It’s a question that myself and many others are now asking because if it’s not a mental illness then isn’t it just part of a normal and natural human experience?
It’s not just in sport that the distinction needs clearing up either, because recently, I was accused of ‘not being sensitive’ towards someone else’s ‘mental health’. Apparently, I of all people ‘should understand’ – BUT there’s a difference between having a mental illness and being an unreasonable and argumentative *******!
But where do you draw the line? I appreciate it’s a very difficult one!
Yesterday, I was thinking about how initially I continued with my international eventing career even though I was suffering from crippling depression.
Looking back there was no way I should have gone to the Young Horse World Championships at Le Lion-d’Angers in France during the throes of my first episode of depression, but I was terrified of losing my career, so I pushed myself to continue.
But what’s interesting about that experience is that although I was suffering terribly with mental illness, once I got on the horse, I was able to ride pretty much to my usual ability.
I wasn’t having a confidence crisis and I wasn’t feeling the ‘pressure’ to compete and win – I (just) had a horrifying mental illness.
I managed to ride there and come home with a bronze medal for Great Britain, so that shows me that what I went through is very different to whatever Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles are experiencing because my performance wasn’t affected in any way at all.
It is important to note that this wasn’t the Olympics, and I wasn’t plastered all over social media (it didn’t exist in 2003 thank God), but it was still a big international event and a very dangerous sport, however, neither of those things were my concern because it was the illness underneath that was the real problem.
Everyone is different
It is also important to note that everyone’s experience of mental disruption whether that be mental ‘health’, well-being, or illness, is going to be individual to them and them only – we all have our own unique set of circumstances to go with whatever we’re going through - so it’s never fair to even try to guess what’s going on with anyone’s mental state because it’s only them that can truly know.
In these cases, it’s important that the person experiencing the problem, voices exactly what it is that they’re experiencing, something which neither Osaka or Biles have done to any significant extent.
A journalist friend of mine struck on this point recently when he said:
“I think Simone B is doing absolutely the right thing and it is good that she is so open about it - assuming that she is, I suppose.”
Being the ‘expert of yourself’
Despite the confusion, I do admire Simone’s courage to be the ‘expert of herself’ and to step back from the competition when it comes to prioritising her own safety.
Gymnastics is a precision sport; one false move can end in serious injury, so it’s definitely not a good idea to perform if you are experiencing a crisis of confidence which is what it would appear to be in this case.
In an article, Biles was quoted as saying that she was suffering from a case of ‘the twisties’ which refers to an issue gymnasts face when they temporarily lose their spatial awareness in mid-air. This must be a very unsettling and disconcerting feeling.
Fellow gymnasts have described the condition that interrupts normal communications between brain and body, with one French athlete explaining that:
"You have absolutely no control over your body and what it does."
“Any gymnast who falls victim to the twisties is paralysed by the fear of losing and serious injury.”
So, the question people are now asking is: if she is suffering from this crippling phenomenon then should she have gone to the Olympics in the first place?
Social media pressure
On top of the usual pressures of sport these days comes the added stresses, strains, negativity (and backlash) that is so often created by social media.
I’ve written about social media before and explained why I’m not really a fan; if you are going to use it then you need to be aware that for as much positivity it can bring, there is going to be an equal amount (if not more) of a negative aspect that goes with it too.
This is something that Simone Biles mentioned in one of her press interviews this week when she said:
“I don’t trust myself as much anymore… maybe it’s getting older. There were a couple of days when everyone tweets you and you feel the weight of the world.”
There’s a simple answer to this of course and that’s deleting social media!
I feel enormous compassion for anyone going through a mental health crisis especially when it’s in such a public arena, and on a world stage such as the Olympic Games.
It must have been so impossibly hard for Simone to have watch her team-mate win gold while she sat on the sidelines being scrutinised by everyone, and I think that showed great courage as well as enormous maturity too.
Whatever she’s experiencing I really hope that she is able to articulate the problem and use her platform to help other people out there, either in sport or otherwise, who are struggling with their nerves, performance, pressure, and general well-being.
Overall, I think It’s terribly sad to see her not enjoying a sport that once brought her so much joy and I think former GB gymnastics champion Beth Tweddle explained it best when she simply said:
“I think across the gymnastic community it’s a case of ‘is she okay?’ That’s always the first concern when a gymnast takes themselves out of a competition.”
I too hope that she is ok, and I wish her all the best as she makes her decision about competing in the other events in Tokyo next week.
It will be very interesting to see what transpires over the next few days.
Thanks for reading,
Speak to you soon,