When did the brain stop being part of the body?
After her first vault in the Women’s Gymnastics Team Finals early Tuesday morning, Simone Biles, one of the greatest athletes of all time, withdrew from the rest of the team competition for medical reasons.
“Medical reasons” was the phrase offered by USA Gymnastics to the press. Online, the conversation online quickly became about whether or not it was for physical or mental reasons.
Ultimately, at subsequent press events, Biles confirmed she wasn’t out because of injury. She needed to “focus on my well-being” with a plan to “take it a day at a time.” Biles cited Naomi Osaka’s decision to pull out of the French Open as an inspiration.
Biles and Osaka are part of a new movement.
For too long, mental and physical health have been viewed as distinct — siloed from each other, with injuries to one existing in a vacuum from the other. Nowhere is this more true than elite sports. The decisions made by Biles and Osaka reject this outdated, unscientific idea: For a person to be healthy, whether or not they’re an Olympian, they need to see mental and physical health as the same.
What’s new — After a press conference with her teammates, during which Biles confirmed she withdrew to protect her mental health, public comments came fast and furious — some supporting, and others critical. Even notorious troll Piers Morgan jumped in.
Regardless, Biles appears to be clear-eyed about the situation, despite the difficulty inherent in making it.
“No injury, thankfully,” she told the press. “And that’s why I took a step back because I didn’t want to do something silly out there and get injured.”
Later, in an interview with NBC, she explained:
“Physically, I feel good. I’m in shape. Emotionally, it varies on the time and moment. Coming to the Olympics and being head star isn’t an easy feat... I’m okay, just super furstrated. But super proud of these girls and now we’re silver medalists — something we’ll cherish forever. We hope America still loves us.”
Whether or not Biles will compete in Thursday’s individual all-around competition is to be determined. She’s also qualified to compete in all four apparatus finals.
Elite athletes and mental health
Studies suggest elite athletes have, on average, high rates of depression, anxiety, and substance misuse.
For example, a 2019 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that the prevalence of mental health symptoms and disorders ranged among elite athletes were as follows:
- 19 percent for alcohol misuse
- 34 percent for anxiety/depression for current elite athletes,
- 16 percent for distress to 26 percent for anxiety/depression for former elite athletes.
A 2020 position statement published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine lists the many factors that contribute to elite athletes developing mental health disorders: injury, bullying, sexual abuse, pressure, and perfectionism.
The report stresses the need for detection and management of these issues. Others in sports medicine have pushed for better frameworks for the early detection of mental health issues in elite athletes.
Pushing athletes to compete when they don’t feel mentally capable of doing so, as Biles noted, could very well result in injury. That injury adds another risk factor for developing mental health and/or substance use disorders.
The physical and the mental have always been inextricably linked and denying that reality will only lead to more of both.
History is full of examples of athletes being pressured to compete despite injuries. In response to the news about Biles, one Twitter user mentioned Kerry Strug. He wrote:
She sure did. She also retired from the sport shortly after.
Elite athletes and trauma
It’s also worth noting that after landing her gold-winning vault on a broken ankle, Strug was handed to Larry Nassar, the longtime USA gymnastics coach who reportedly sexually assaulted at least 265 gymnasts over the course of his career. In 2018 he pleaded guilty to 10 counts of sexually assaulting young women and girls. Strug says she wasn’t one of Nasar’s abuse survivors.
Biles, however, is. Nassar is part of the reason she chose not to retire and instead compete in the Toyko 2020 Olympics. (Though we’re in 2021, the Games are still officially named for 2020.)
Prior to the Games, she told NBC’s Hoda Kotb:
“I just feel like everything that happened, I had to come back to the sport to be a voice, to have change happen. Because I feel like if there weren't a remaining survivor in the sport, [USA Gymnastics] would've just brushed it to the side.”
It’s no wonder why, after a few missteps during qualifications on Sunday, Biles posted on Instagram: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times."
When someone is sexually abused, the injury isn’t limited to certain parts of the body. Mental injuries follow. That’s true for any human being, and any type of abuse, whether or not they have gold medals hanging on the wall.
During the press conference today, Biles said she felt like she was “still doing [the Olympic Games] for other people — and it hurts my heart that doing what I love has been taken away from me.”
Only Biles knows the precise combination of factors that made her feel unable to perform her best this morning. We don’t need to know what they are. What matters is what she did about them. In this case, she did what was best for the team.
Rather than being selfish, what Biles did for her teammates was sacrifice her own potential glory because she felt she could be a liability to the team. She gave them the best shot of winning, and herself the best shot of continuing to compete, whether it’s on July 29th at the Women’s All-Around finals, or somewhere else. She cheered on her team.
That’s what GOATs do.