When an American journalist asked gymnastics champion Simone Biles a week before the Olympics when she was happiest in her career, she said: “Honest? Probably when I was off.”
A remarkable response from an athlete who has won four Olympic titles and nineteen World Cup golds. But gymnastics is not the only thing in her life, Biles said on Tuesday after her withdrawal from the Olympic Nations Cup and shortly before her cancellation for the individual all-round final. She wanted to focus on her mental health and isn’t sure yet if she will compete in the individual finals next week.
The 24-year-old routine surprised many with her decision, which garnered incomprehension and scorn. British TV host Piers Morgan wondered on Twitter whether mental health has become the common excuse for disappointing top sport performances – Biles scored poorly in qualifying, leaving the United States behind Russia. “What a joke,” Morgan wrote. “Just admit that you’ve done poorly, made mistakes, and are going to try harder. Kids need strong role models, not this nonsense.” And American conservative opinion maker Charlie Kirk said: “We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles. She shows the rest of the nation that you break into a million pieces when the going gets tough.”
But Biles also received a lot of support, including from her famous compatriot Michael Phelps, winner of 28 Olympic swimming medals and long struggling with depression. Phelps told NBC news channel that the high expectations of athletes, of Olympians, are stifling. The spotlight is constantly on them. “But nobody is perfect. It’s okay not to be okay.”
The exact same words used by top tennis player Naomi Osaka in her essay for Time Magazine, one month after her withdrawal from Roland Garros. The Japanese also suffers from depression since she won the US Open in 2018. In Paris she dreaded the daily press talk. Not because she has anything against journalists, she swore, but she’s not a natural speaker, so why torture herself?
The fierce reactions to Osaka’s decision match those to Biles’s. She would pose, shame her country. She wouldn’t realize that the press has made her great. The same Piers Morgan who attacked Biles on Twitter described Osaka as “an arrogant, spoiled brat” and “stubborn little lady.” Remarkable, because former football player Paul Gascoigne, struggling with depression, deserved “our sympathy, not ridicule”, according to the TV host.
Some conclude from this that there is a double standard. Female top athletes who adopt a vulnerable position are ridiculed, men reap respect (see also the well-selling books of troubled former football players such as Wesley Sneijder and Andy van der Meijde). It would show sexism.
But sports psychologist Yannick Balk sees insufficient evidence for this. “I do see a general trend that top athletes are more vulnerable in terms of mental health, both men and women. Athletes who say: mental injuries are just as important as physical injuries. And also That take time. You can’t get there with one conversation.”
According to Balk, there is increasing pressure on athletes, also due to social media. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram offer them a stage, but the world can also turn against them via the same platforms. “Sometimes we forget that those superheroes are also people with doubts and insecurities. No matter how good you are as an athlete, you can succumb under the pressure. And then it’s very good that someone like Biles takes a step back and doesn’t go over her limits, maybe injure herself because of it and have to say afterwards: I wasn’t completely fresh mentally. You should have heard her critics then.”
Also read: Simone Biles, acrobat from another planet
Simone Biles said this week that she was inspired by Osaka in her decision. Like the Japanese, she didn’t enjoy her sport as much anymore. “I wanted to make something fun out of these Olympics for myself, but I always felt like I was doing it for others. It hurt that what I love so much has been taken from me. I am not only an athlete, but also a human being.”
The human Biles has somewhat lost confidence in himself. She’s getting older, feeling more physically vulnerable, but her fame and status push her to ever greater risks. Her most recent jump, the Yurchenko double pike, is the most difficult and dangerous in women’s gymnastics. Nobody imitates her. A video circulating on social media has already been viewed millions of times, but the fact remains that she can fall on her head with a minuscule mistake.
Biles wanted to share the jump in Tokyo with a large audience, but in the run-up to the Games she has not been able to perfect the Yurchenko double pike because, partly due to the difficulty, she has sore ankles. Her coach Laurent Landi persuaded her to wait until after arriving in Japan. But with a shorter preparation time, she also takes more risks. And an athlete who wants to defend four Olympic titles in corona time is already under pressure.
You saw the first signs of uncertainty in June, at the Olympic trials in St. Louis. In front of a frenzied horde of fans – cell phones at the ready – Biles piled foul after foul on the second night, after a glowing win over the first. “It wasn’t my best performance, I was having a tough time mentally,” admitted Biles, who spoke of himself as if it were two people: “Simone from night one left Simone far behind from night two.”
Perhaps because of the craziness of that evening, after a relatively quiet corona period, Biles realized what awaited her as an arrived athlete at the largest sporting event on earth. And that madness is just against her. Compared to other gymnasts, she is casual and level-headed. “As soon as she feels like she can’t be normal anymore, I think she’ll stop,” coach Laurent Landi said. The New York Times.
To bed without food eten
Simone Biles would not have been Simone Biles had she not been adopted at the age of six by her grandfather Ron and his second wife Nellie. Before that, she exchanged one foster home for another, because her drug-addicted mother could not take care of her, her brother and two sisters. With her mother, she once said, the cat was fed and the children went to bed without food.
But she had a good life in a white Houston suburb. More or less by accident she ended up in a gym. A trainer there fell for the quality that would later become her trademark: no matter how high her tumbles through the air, she always lands on her feet. Biles may have hated cats from her childhood, but she is often compared to the animal.
Read also this article from 2018 about team doctor Larry Nassar
Later in her career, Biles would come into contact with Larry Nassar, team physician of the American gymnastics association USA Gymnastics, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for sexually abusing hundreds of gymnasts. One of the few times Biles spoke to the press about the abuse at a ranch outside Houston was with the monthly magazine last summer. vogue. “I felt I knew, but I didn’t want to admit to myself that it happened,” she said. “Because to me it felt like America wanted me to be perfect.”
Someone who is “stained,” she reasoned, couldn’t be a darling. And sportswomen who win Olympic medals become national darlings.
How much Biles suffered from the abuse is apparent from, among other things, the passage in vogue in which she talks about the period when she went to live on her own, in the summer of 2017. “At one point I slept so much because for me that was the closest to death without hurting myself. It was an escape from all my thoughts, from the world, from what I had to deal with.”
Following her decision this week, Biles appeared to indirectly backtrack on the abuse, sharing a post from former gymnast and coach Andrea Orris on Instagram. He recalled that during her childhood and teens, Biles was “molested” by her team doctor, and that the same man, “her predator”, was protected by the organization Biles came out for: USA Gymnastics. An organization she previously said she felt betrayed about. “This girl has endured more trauma at the age of 24 than most people will ever go through in their lives,” Orris said.
“Perhaps there is still a dichotomy,” says sports psychologist Balk about the varying reactions to Biles’ decision: from ‘how clever’ to ‘get together’. “But hopefully there will come a time when it will be accepted and respected that athletes take a step back when they go through a lesser phase.”
And that is sorely needed, he says, because although the majority of his clients are eighteen years or older, more and more children and young people are finding their way to his practice (the youngest was a gymnast of nine). “The younger athletes are given the designation ‘talent’, the greater the problems later in their sports career – if at all.”
Acceptance among adult athletes also means more attention is paid to the mental guidance of young athletes, he says. “And I don’t just mean visualizing exercises, but also someone’s personal development.”
Many beautiful things come from striving for top performance, says Balk, such as self-development and escaping poverty. “But top sport also has a downside and the art can be enjoyed for years to come.”
For Simone Biles, the positive reactions have already yielded something, she wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “The outpouring of love and support makes me realize that I am more than my performance and gymnastics, something I never really believed before.”