When Simone Biles put her wellbeing before an Olympic medal, hate comments about her “betrayal” were inevitable. Unsurprisingly, Piers Morgan summed up the stubborn narrow-mindedness of some. He called Biles’ issues “a go-to excuse for poor performance” and suggested that kids need stronger role models. His insensitive comments followed several admissions of athletes struggling with their mental health.
However, the most decorated American gymnast of all time also received an overwhelming outpouring of support and understanding. Her unusual, incredibly important decision marks the emerging era where young people don’t see a reason to stigmatize mental struggles.
The Simone Biles effect
Simone Biles decided to pull out of the Olympics after experiencing “twisties” – a condition that puts a gymnast in danger of serious injury. Suddenly, the mind and body stop cooperating. When the athlete is twisting mid-air, they completely lose track of where they are, which means it’s near impossible to land safely.
Biles planned to perform a vault with 2.5 twists during the competition but looked visibly confused while doing only 1.5 twists. Thankfully, she managed to land without hurting herself – a testament to her skill in itself – and only returned to cheer on her teammates from the sidelines.
“After the performance I did, I just didn’t want to go on,” she said. “I have to focus on my mental health. We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do,” she stressed.
She’s another in the line of athletes who started normalizing the notion that mental health and physical health go hand in hand. Tennis player Naomi Osaka, sprinter Noah Lyles, and swimmer Simone Manuel, among others, opened up about their struggles. That would be unthinkable just a decade or two ago.
In 1996, Biles’ predecessor Kerri Strugg broke her ankle during the competition. Upon her coach’s request, she proceeded to her second vault despite the pain, landing on one foot. Back then, her sacrifice was widely celebrated.
Today, after the world learned about decades of abuse in US gymnastics, the pain in Strug’s face points to a system where athletes weren’t treated like humans. Biles has experienced – and challenged – this era first-hand. She is one of the at least 368 gymnasts who alleged some form of sexual abuse. They were victims of their coaches, doctors, gym owners, and other adults working in gymnastics.
Athletes and the future of mental health
Today, Kerri Strug is one of many applauding Biles’ decision. She was joined by Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, who said Biles’ story broke his heart. “I hope this is an eye-opening experience, I really do. I hope this is an opportunity for us to jump on board, and to even blow this mental health thing even more wide open. It is so much bigger than we can ever imagine,” he disclosed for NBC.
When top athletes perceived as some of the most resilient people on the planet admit their vulnerability, it resonates beyond sports. Respected organizational psychologist Adam Grant has joined the conversation to highlight that we all should take a page out of Biles’ book. Grant has publicly asked people to stop attacking her for putting health above a sport. He also hinted that we need more compassion in general.
“It’s okay to call in sick. It should be okay to call in sad, too,” he tweeted. “There’s no stigma if you get the flu or break your leg. We need the same compassion for emotional pain as physical pain. Failing to address mental health leaves people suffering in silence,” he concluded.
Piers Morgan is right: kids do need stronger role models. And it looks like Biles and her fellow athletes are paving the way for the new icons, who will continue to redefine strength and resilience.
Cover photo credit Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil by Wikimedia Commons