Simone Biles at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, August 3rd 2021 / Picture Credit: Paul Kitagaki Jr./Zuma Press/PA Images
Simone Biles at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, August 3rd 2021 / Picture Credit: Paul Kitagaki Jr./Zuma Press/PA Images

The most decorated athlete in US history, gymnast Simone Biles, has once again made headlines at the Tokyo Olympics, this time not with gold medals but with her decision to withdraw from the team final to prioritise her mental health. Her decision to cut her Olympic journey short has promoted intense debate but has also been met with admiration and support from many corners. It has also thrust the issue of mental health into the global spotlight, kickstarting a long-overdue conversation about the mental struggles of elite athletes.

It is especially important that the coverage surrounding Biles and her decision not to compete is happening at the Summer Olympics, the single most widely followed sporting competition on Earth. Between the coronavirus pandemic and Biles’ withdrawal, the Tokyo 2020 Games has become the epicentre of a worldwide dialogue about both physical and mental health – which is perhaps unsurprising, given the extent to which concerns over Covid-19 and the mental and emotional impact of the pandemic defined the lead-up to these Games.

Support for Simone Biles’ decision flowed in equal measure from fellow athletes, social commentators and ordinary fans, proving that collective attitude regarding mental health in elite sports has improved notably in recent years. Biles’ struggles are those of an Olympic champion, who must cope with days when “everybody tweets you and you feel the weight of the world,” but her statement that "it just sucks when you're fighting with your own head" has nonetheless resonated with millions around the globe.

Biles refers to her struggles as ”the twisties”, a slang term used in gymnastics to refer to a mental block that stops a gymnast from performing skills they might have successfully completed thousands of times before. It’s a well-known phenomenon among gymnasts, but few people outside the sport had heard about it until this week. In the following days, countless articles explaining the affliction have been written as the Tokyo Olympics became the backdrop for a frank conversation about the mental as well as physical hurdles Olympic athletes face.

Picture Credit: Pixabay
Picture Credit: Pixabay

This discussion was already underway before the Games started, thanks to Olympic torch lighter Naomi Osaka’s decision earlier this year to drop out of the French Open for similar reasons. While the impact of Osaka’s decision was mostly limited to the world of tennis, Biles’ withdrawal in the middle of the Summer Games has prompted a much larger audience to grapple with these difficult questions.

Attitudes towards mental health have of course evolved alongside the Olympics themselves. When the first edition of the modern Games took place in Greece in 1896, the science of psychology was in its infancy. Despite the advances made in the field over the past several decades, even current Olympians such as American gymnast Sam Mikulak point out the mental health struggles that come with elite sports had rarely been taken seriously until now.

Even before the pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics were set to mark a break with that longstanding pattern. In 2018, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) convened in Switzerland to review scientific literature addressing mental health considerations in Olympic and Paralympic athletes. The meeting resulted in a set of best practices on dealing with mental health at an elite sporting level, aimed at an audience of medical and non-medical sports professionals and providing recommendations for athletes.

The pandemic, and the loss and isolation it entailed, made a reckoning with the mental health toll of these competitions a matter of urgency for the sportsmen and women preparing for Tokyo 2020. As the first Olympic event for which the IOC put together guidelines to inform both athletes and their coaches about mental health issues, the makeup of some of the most prominent national delegations to Japan prioritises the mental wellbeing of their athletes in unprecedented fashion. Both the American and British Olympic delegations to the Tokyo Olympics, for example, include teams of mental health professionals for the first time.

Picture Credit: Pixabay
Picture Credit: Pixabay

Even with that newfound support, many of the athletes in Tokyo are still competing in the face of harrowing circumstances. Biles’ 18-year-old teammate Sunisa Lee, for her part, went on to win the gold medal for the US after losing both her aunt and uncle to Covid. The opening ceremony referenced the struggles of athletes in maintaining gruelling training schedules without the usual support from teammates or coaches, with the performance of 27-year old nurse and boxer Arisa Tsubata running on a treadmill under a single spotlight seen as the “perfect metaphor” for the past year.

The adversity faced by many high-level athletes has also been personified by the 29-strong Refugee Team, competing at the Olympics for the second time at Tokyo and made up of competitors who have endured the trauma of having to leave their home countries. Retired athletes such as the celebrated US swimmer Michael Phelps, who opened up about having suicidal thoughts in 2018, have also helped set the terms of this discussion by acknowledging that “it’s OK not to be OK.”

While the ‘Olympic Spirit’ has been evoked since the days of the Games’ founder Pierre de Coubertin, who famously stated that “the important thing is not to win, but to take part”, Simone Biles has put forward an alternative vision of the Olympic Spirit by putting her own mind and body over the public pressure to win gold. When the dust settles and the media furore dies down, the decision to prioritise her mental wellbeing could prove more important than any of the medals in her collection.


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