Friday 30 July 2021
Simone Biles is the greatest female gymnast ever. By talking openly about mental health she may have changed elite sport forever.
Nimo Omer: Hi, I’m Nimo and this is Sensemaker.
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Today, the pressure of being the G.O.A.T… the greatest of all time.
“Here comes Simone Biles. 30 time Olympic champion and world medallist, how many will she get here in Tokyo…”BBC Sport
When American gymnast Simone Biles stepped out onto the floor at the Tokyo Olympics earlier this week, all eyes were on her.
She’d be leading the USA in defending their title as the women’s team all-around champions.
But it didn’t quite go as planned.
[Clip of the Russian Olympic Committee winning gold]
Earlier on in the competition, Simone Biles was meant to do an “Amanar” vault. It involves a roundoff back handspring, followed by two and a half twists in mid-air before nailing that perfect landing.
And it’s so difficult that no other woman has attempted it in competition.
But on Tuesday, Simone Biles only managed one and a half twists. Her landing was off and she grimaced as she walked off the mat.
She appeared to “get lost in the air” mid vault.
“I’ve just never felt like this going into a competition before and I tried to go out here and have fun and warm up in the back went a little bit better but once I came out here I was like no, mental’s not there so I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself.”Simone Biles speaking at a press conference following the competition
Simone Biles briefly left the arena with her coach before returning in her tracksuit. She was pulling out of the team competition.
And as soon as she did… the internet exploded. She was accused of using her mental health as an “excuse” for a below-standard performance. She was called selfish and weak. Some people said she’d let the entire country down.
So the question is, has Simone Biles just changed mental health in elite sports for good?
Now Simone Biles isn’t the only Olympic athlete to struggle.
“Alright a shocking update this morning, Japan’s tennis superstar Naomi Osaka is leaving Tokyo without an Olympic medal. Just hours ago the tennis star lost in the third round of the tennis tournament…”11 Alive News
Just like for Simone Biles, there were high hopes that tennis star Naomi Osaka would make the podium at the Tokyo Olympics.
She was a favourite to win gold.
But Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles were under more pressure than most. They were being asked to be more than just athletes, they were the “face of the Games”.
Naomi Osaka had been selected to light the Olympic cauldron in the opening ceremony. A rare honour.
And for Simone Biles, well she’d been tasked with bringing in viewers to primetime Tuesday night TV.
She was the face of the Summer Games for the American broadcaster NBC, the unofficial leader of Team USA and they were hoping she’d help salvage the millions of dollars they’d spent on landing the games.
But there’s little doubt these Olympics feel different from most both for viewers, and for the athletes.
“And it’s been really stressful this Olympic games uh just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week… and I think we’re just a little too stressed out but we should be out here having fun and that’s not the case.”Simone Biles speaking at a press conference following the competition
So despite the million dollar commercial deals, how did Simone Biles know to say enough was enough?
Back in 2016, just before the Rio Games when Simone Biles was bursting onto the world stage, there was another athlete who was beginning to speak out about his mental health.
Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever, began to discuss his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts.
“You know for me for so long, I didn’t have self-love, I had no self-confidence and I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror so I just got kind of sick of it and obviously I hit a very low point in my life where I didn’t want to be alive anymore.”Michael Phelps speaking on GMA
And it triggered a cultural shift in the world of elite sport.
Sporting bodies began to create mental health initiatives and there was an outpouring of support. But for Simone Biles, 2016 was too soon to speak out. If she was fighting her demons back then, she hid it well. She won four gold medals.
But we’re now five years on. The world’s view has shifted
And because of that shift, Simone Biles could stand up in Tokyo and say she wasn’t in the right place mentally to compete.
It doesn’t look like we’ll see any more of Simone Biles competing in Tokyo but if anything, her pulling out of the Games has only reinstated her position as the G.O.A.T…. the greatest of all time.
Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.
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