Flying through the air, one and a half turns into an Amanar vault, Simone Biles was lost. She bailed on what should have been her second twist and faltered on the landing, earning a 13.766 before withdrawing from the team gymnastics finals at the Tokyo Olympics.
Speculation swirled about a possible injury as Team USA went on to collect a silver medal in her absence. Following the event, Biles confirmed that she was dealing not with a physical issue but a mental one.
After she withdrew, Biles cried as she told reporters that she had never felt like this before. “I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to, and I don’t know if it’s age,” she said. “I feel like I’m also not having as much fun, and I know that this Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself.” Rather than risk costing her team a medal, she stepped aside, prompting a wave of tweets from fellow athletes and fans wishing her well. Early Wednesday morning, USA Gymnastics announced that Biles would also be withdrawing from the individual all-around competition.
Biles is now one of several prominent Black athletes who have decided to prioritize their well-being over their sport. Tennis phenom Naomi Osaka made headlines this year after withdrawing from the French Open and skipping out on Wimbledon, citing mental health concerns. Simone Manuel, a 2016 gold medalist and U.S. Olympic swim team captain from Sugar Land, spoke with Sports Illustrated about her decision to take a step back from training last spring, when she was diagnosed with overtraining.
Like Osaka and Manuel, Biles is competing in a predominately white sport in the middle of an unprecedented year. Between a pandemic that has disproportionately claimed Black lives and a nationwide “racial reckoning” that prompted a lot of conversation but little action, it’s a miracle these women are at the top of their game at all.
“Being a Black person in America played a part in it,” Manuel told the Washington Post last month about her overtraining diagnosis. “This past year for the Black community has been brutal … It’s not something that I could ignore, and it was just another factor that can influence you, mentally, in a draining way.”
All of these athletes, it must be said, compete because they want to win. Not because they signed up for the added pressure of being marketed as role models, nor for the increased scrutiny that comes with fame and success. In June, Sha’Carri Richardson became the perfect encapsulation of everything that’s wrong with how we treat athletes when she went from darling of the Olympic trials to subject of a national debate after she was suspended for marijuana use. Richardson later apologized, admitting that she used cannabis to cope with her biological mother’s recent death, and sparking a conversation about the stigma and lack of support surrounding mental health resources in sports.
But few, if any, of these athletes can truly understand the position Biles is in.
At 24 years old, she is without equal in her field. She’s the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history, the winningest female gymnast in the world, and one of a handful of household names to compete in Tokyo. With the world’s eyes glued to her, the dynamo from just north of Houston twists and turns her body with such precision and power, repeatedly landing moves that would be reckless for other gymnasts to even attempt.
Her domination in gymnastics has also come at a cost.
Heading into the Tokyo Olympics, Biles gave multiple interviews about the discrepancies in the start values awarded to her routines by the International Gymnastics Federation. Gymnasts are scored both on execution and start value (or difficulty), and despite the obvious difficulty of her routines, Biles and many gymnastics insiders believe it’s not accurately reflected in her scores. So each time the gymnast steps onto the mat, she does it knowing that she’s putting herself at risk without any hope that she’ll be properly recognized for it.“They’re both too low and they even know it,” Biles told the New York Times. “But they don’t want the field to be too far apart. And that’s just something that’s on them. That’s not on me.”
Biles is also nearing her sport’s retirement age. In conversation with Texas Monthly in March, she spoke about the toll gymnastics was taking on her body. “Some days I don’t feel good, but then you have to force yourself to get out there and go for it,” she said. “So I do feel like [people] forget, because they think I’m superhuman.”
Over the past five years, Biles has fundamentally changed the sport of gymnastics. Her routines have become the new gold standard, especially as she has continued to debut and execute moves so challenging that they’ve been named after her. The sport that she has excelled in is predicated on perfection; it’s dedicated to testing the limits of the body, but showing it off in a manner that’s supposed to look effortless. Viewers aren’t meant to see the years of training behind each move—just a glittering young woman in a leotard flying through the air and sticking the landing with a smile to the judges.
This sport owes Biles a great debt, not just because she’s done so much to further it, but also because it took something from her. In the months leading up to Tokyo, Biles has emphasized one of her main motivations for returning to compete: as one of 204 known Larry Nassar survivors, Biles wanted to be a visible, audible reminder to USA Gymnastics that she is still here. “I had to come back to the sport to be a voice, to have change happen,” Biles said on Today. “Because I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side.”
Now after she withdrew from competition, Biles is ready to compete on her terms. She’s ready to dispense with perfection. Her decision wasn’t a sign of weakness or defeat, but of her immeasurable grace and control. This was a sign of strength, another opportunity for us to think about what she and her teammates go through, what we put Black athletes through in sports that continue to devalue their work or in environments that continue to leave them unprotected.
“I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times,” she wrote in an Instagram post the day before the finals. “I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard.”