Gymnast Simone Biles, who is by every measure a global athletic superstar, stunned the world when she withdrew from competition in the first week of the Tokyo Olympic Games. “I have to put my pride aside. I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being. That’s why I decided to take a step back,” the 24-year-old told reporters.
Biles had experienced what gymnasts call the "twisties"—something of a mental block that can get in the way of athletes' normal performance level, as well as their safety. When gymnasts get a case of the twisties, as Biles experienced on video during her vault routine when a commentator noted it looked like she "got lost in the air," they lose a spacial sense of up and down and can become gravely injured if they land wrongly. She also expressed concern that her poor scores while experiencing this vertigo-like condition could affect the team's chance at a medal.
Her decision was supported by her teammates, her sponsors, and U.S.A. Gymnastics, but it wasn’t long before the mean tweets started. Commentator Charlie Kirk delivered a particularly harsh assessment on his eponymous podcast: “Simone Biles just showed the rest of the nation that when things get tough, you shatter into a million pieces,” he claimed. “We are raising a generation of weak people like [her]… If she’s got all these mental health problems: don’t show up.” He also branded her “selfish,” “immature” and “a shame to the country.”
"She's totally a sociopath," Kirk added, demonstrating that he totally doesn’t know what sociopathy is.
But what about his larger point? Is Simone Biles part of a generation brought up to be feeble and sniveling? On the contrary. Biles is part of a generation that’s empowered enough to stand up for themselves, and who know protecting their well-being is the only way to make sure they play at the top of their game.
Biles’s critics are comparing her unfavorably to Kerri Strug. In the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Strug memorably performed a vault on a sprained ankle in a successful bid to secure the U.S. gymnastics team a gold medal. Although it was an unforgettable moment of genuine courage and heroism on Strug’s part, there were multiple monsters lurking in the background of the fairy tale.
The now-notorious sex abuser Dr. Larry Nassar was the team doctor on hand to treat Strug’s injury. And Strug was urged to do the vault in the first place by her coach, Bela Karolyi, who has been accused of physically and psychologically abusing his trainees. One of his most famous students, Dominique Moceanu, claims that under his regime, she was subjected to constant criticism about her weight, put on a strict diet and forced to work when injured. “It was verbal and emotional abuses running rampant,” she told PRI’s The World. “Calling my father, to enforce physical punishment on me, was the scariest thing of it all. I was terrified every time I went to the gym—my coaches would threaten me, that if I didn’t perform well enough, to their liking, they would call my father [to punish her physically].”
Strug’s fateful vault marked the end of her competitive career, but playing while compromised can have consequences far beyond professional ones. Two weeks before the 1980 Olympic games, for instance, Soviet gymnast Elena Mukhina was struggling to train after breaking her leg in a previous competition. Not only did Mukhina’s coaches convince doctors to discharge her from the hospital against her wishes, they also pressured her to include a dangerous move in her floor routine, called the Thomas Salto. Mukhina continued working despite her injury, persevering until she was “so tired… both physically and psychologically,” as she later described it for Russia’s Ogonyok magazine. Her exhaustion and her incomplete recovery from her injury led to a critical mistake during training. Mukhina fell on her chin, snapping her spine and rendering her a quadriplegic for life.
“For our country, athletic successes and victories have always meant somewhat more than even simply the prestige of the nation. They embodied (and embody) the correctness of the political path we have chosen, the advantages of the system, and they are becoming a symbol of superiority. Hence the demand for victory—at any price,” Mukhina explained.
She was describing the 1980s Soviet Union, yet that same ideological attitude seems to be at play in the current criticism of Simone Biles.
Twenty-five years after Strug collapsed in agony on the mat after sticking her landing, Biles’s decision not to proceed in the midst of mental health concerns represents a revolution in gymnastics culture. Undoubtedly, her choice was made easier by the fact she is most likely the greatest of all time in her sport—indeed, she is so conscious of that status that her leotard features a rhinestone goat. Still, it’s a decision that gymnasts of the '80s and '90s could not have contemplated making on the biggest global stage, and it creates a new path for other athletes to benefit. That’s leadership.
Biles isn’t alone in rebalancing athletic performance and well-being. Tennis star Naomi Osaka, 23, made headlines when she was fined $15,000 and publically reprimanded by sport officials after skipping a mandatory press conference after a match at the French Open in May.
“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before, or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds, and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me,” Osaka, who is ranked number two in the world, explained on social media. “I’ve watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room… I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.” She withdrew from the tournament entirely in the ensuing controversy, revealing her struggle with depression and social anxiety was behind her stance.
Although Osaka was raised in the United States, she was born in Japan and plays for her native country in the Olympics. In a surprise move, she was chosen to carry the Olympic torch into the Opening Ceremony in Tokyo, lighting the Olympic cauldron to officially kick off the Games.
“Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life. I have no words to describe the feelings I have right now but I do know I am currently filled with gratefulness and thankfulness,” she posted afterward.
Indeed, athletes like Biles and Osaka have nothing to prove, and they don’t owe the world more than they’ve already given us: outstanding discipline, commitment, and achievement at the highest level. We can be proud of their confidence and their willingness to lead, even though this time that leadership looks different and comes from a different place than their usual position at the top of the podium, draped in gold.