All was well at the Olympic Women’s Team Gymnastics Final until it wasn’t. Experts penciled in the United States for a three-peat, led by one of the greatest gymnasts, if not the greatest, of all time: Simone Biles. Biles completed a vault well below her usual standards, which was quickly followed by a sudden announcement of her withdrawl from the team competition, with USA Gymnastics citing “medical issues” (Sporting News, “Olympic gymnastics results: Team USA settles for silver in women’s team final after Simone Biles withdraws,” 07.27.2021); (CNBC, “Simone Biles drops out of Olympics team gymnastics final as Russian athletes upset USA,” 07.28.2021).
I was shocked. My first thoughts were: “No! She is injured? What terrible timing.” But when Simone Biles addressed the media, she cited mental health for her withdrawl from the competition, saying, “I wasn’t in the right mental space…I didn’t want to go out there and do something dumb and get hurt. It’s not worth it. We’re not just athletes, we’re people” (New York Daily News, “Olympic gymnast Simone Biles ‘not in the right mental space,’ drops out of team final,” 07.27.2021). The fact that she needed to clarify that she is not just an athlete but a person reveals a lot about the athletic culture in our country. For years, the culture of athletics has always promoted the idea of “toughing it out” and “not cracking under the pressure.” For example, NFL Safety Ronnie Lott chose to amputate his finger rather than put it in a cast for eight weeks to avoid missing games. Lott regretted the decision later on, saying, “I tried to laugh it off, but I felt sick” (Sports Casting, “4 Times NFL Players Battled Through Brutal Injuries,” 10.19.2019). Athletes risk being perceived as weak if they admit to pain or feeling pressure. To me, watching Biles publicly address her mental health concerns at the highest stage of athletics was revolutionary.
Another unprecedented example of this newfound openness to discuss athletes’ mental health is the case of Naomi Osaka, a four-time tennis grand slam tournament champion, who withdrew from the French Open earlier this year due to social anxiety with regards to the press (New York Times, “Naomi Osaka Quits the French Open After News Conference Dispute,” 05.31.2021). She reported struggling with depression since the 2018 US Open. Osaka, like Biles, had a rough Olympics, losing in the third round of the women’s tennis tournament. Following her loss, she explained, “I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this…I feel like my attitude wasn’t that great because I don’t really know how to cope with that pressure so that’s the best I could have done in this situation” (CNN, “Naomi Osaka will leave Tokyo Olympics without a medal, loses in third round to Marketa Vondrousova” 07.27.2021).
These examples are particularly significant because Osaka and Biles are enormously successful athletes. Biles transcends greatness in her sport; she won four gold medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics, 25 world championship medals and she has four different moves named after her (NBC Sports, “Simone Biles is already the greatest of all time, but she isn’t done yet,” 06.26.2021). Naomi Osaka has become the face of women’s tennis in recent years, reaching a level of stardom that rivals a young Serena Williams. If Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka can candidly and publicly talk about their mental health struggles and the pressures of being an athlete, perhaps it will become acceptable for the next generation of stars to do so as well.
Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka are spearheading a revolutionary movement that aims to recognize the necessity of caring for athletes’ mental health. Athletics fosters stressful and high-pressure environments. Instead of expecting athletes to brush all that aside and still perform successfully time and time again, we need to acknowledge the challenges and pressures of these environments and encourage support and honest dialogue. Many people deal with a mental health-related issue in their lifetime, and like Biles said, star athletes are people too. Humanizing larger-than-life personalities is important for teaching young athletes that even their role models experience struggles. If we can follow the lead of these two superstars, we will be creating a culture where athletes can begin to prioritize wellbeing over winning.
Biles later shared in an Instagram post: “I feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times” (Instagram, @simonebiles, 07.26.2021). How could she not feel that way? Biles was marketed as the face of the Tokyo Games. She appeared in countless advertisements and was hyped up by literally the entire world. Biles also remains the only survivor still competing after Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse (CNN, “Simone Biles says she, too, was abused by former USA team doctor,” 01.16.2018). On top of all that, she had to grapple with the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic postponing the Olympics for a full year. These are large burdens to bear, and it is only right that she takes time for herself and focuses on prioritizing her own health. By acknowledging their struggles, Biles and Osaka have carved out a new path for the norms of athletic culture. And while they face some unique circumstances, the pressure to not let down an institution, or themselves, remains true for most athletes. The honesty of Biles and Osaka has started a cultural shift in the athletics world, one that I hope will allow athletes to take care of themselves while competing in the sports we all love.