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‘I was still doing it for other people’: Simone Biles put her mental health first – and it should be applauded


By Jennifer McShane
27th Jul 2021
‘I was still doing it for other people’: Simone Biles put her mental health first – and it should be applauded

Biles, the most decorated gymnast in the world, left the women’s gymnastics final at the Tokyo Games because she was afraid she would be injured if she continued in a rattled state of mind. To be at the top of your game, to have perfection constantly expected of you, is surely a draining and lonely place.

To be a female athlete at the top of your game is no easy feat. To win, to be the best, is not enough – it’s remaining there that poses the real challenge. Because once you’re up, the pressure mounts because you know which way it could go at any given time.

The Olympic games are the pinnacle of sporting success, it’s the most lauded event in the world.  And US gymnast Simone Biles walked into the event, shouldering the weight of expectation when it comes to taking home gold medals – she won four of them back in 2016. It wasn’t only expected she would do this, it was assumed it was a given.

Fans expected her to be spectacular and perfect, even here at the Tokyo Games in a pandemic and without spectators. She expects it of herself too, alongside the obligations that come with being a worldwide celebrity of her stature.

And she was feeling far from perfect. On Tuesday, she said she knew it as she strode onto the mat. She began “fighting all of those demons” and couldn’t – and wouldn’t – pretend that was okay.

“I have to focus on my mental health”

The American left the arena after the vault – she scored 13.766, her lowest Olympic vault score – before withdrawing from the event, but later returned to support her teammates as they claimed silver behind the Russian Olympic Committee.

“After the performance I did, I just didn’t want to go on,” the 24-year-old said.

“I have to focus on my mental health. I just think mental health is more prevalent in sports right now. We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do. I don’t trust myself as much anymore. Maybe it’s getting older.”

There were a couple of days when everybody tweets you and you feel the weight of the world. We’re not just athletes. We’re people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back.”

“I didn’t want to go out and do something stupid and get hurt. I feel like a lot of athletes speaking up has really helped. It’s so big, it’s the Olympic Games. At the end of the day, we don’t want to be carried out of there on a stretcher.”

She was largely applauded for raising mental health awareness in elite women’s sports – something Naomi Osaka did when she announced that she would withdraw from the French Open in order to prioritise her mental health.

So when Biles, the most decorated gymnast in the world, walked off the mat and left the competition, saying she was not mentally prepared to continue, it was the bravest thing she could have done.  She should be praised for taking that step. So often women – in sport or not – are told they must push past similar. We’re told it’s easier to say nothing – and that’s when we are not competing as Olympians. She said later that she was not certain she would compete again at the Tokyo Games, as she wept afterwards, but came out to support her team.

“This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself when I came in — and I felt like I was still doing it for other people,” she continued.

Women like Simone and Naomi are setting a new standard for women in sport, that mental health priorities are the real wins, not a gold medal or trophy. This is what we should be celebrating.