Tokyo 2020: Simone Biles's decision another example of a radical shift in sporting world
Simone Biles withdrew first from the women’s team event, and then, on Wednesday, from Thursday’s individual all-around event citing mental health issues.
The medals can really wait. Even if those medals are intimately tied up with history - Simone Biles, already heralded as the greatest gymnast of all time, came to Tokyo as the first person to defend an Olympic all-around title in more than 50 years.
These were supposed to be her Olympics. Her success was a given, and the only question seemed to be how much higher she can push her own lofty levels.
Instead, Biles withdrew first from the women’s team event, and then, on Wednesday, from Thursday’s individual all-around event citing mental health issues.
Her decision was yet another example of a radical shift in the sporting world, one which challenges the notion that elite athletes are forged of steel in mind and body, and must not show vulnerability or frailty.
“We have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,” Biles told reporters.
Perhaps there is no better stage than Tokyo 2020 to move the conversation on mental health in sport forward. Deferred by a year because of the pandemic, and now being held under strict Covid-19 restrictions — empty stadiums, daily testing for every athlete, face masks to be worn at all times in the venues (except when the athlete is competing) — the need to speak openly about anxiety, stress or depression has never been higher.
Naomi Osaka, who lit the Olympic cauldron, was the face of this discourse heading into the Games when she pulled out of the French Open and Wimbledon, speaking of “long bouts of depression” and the difficulties of handling the pressure of being a top tennis player. A home favourite, Osaka again pointed to the oppressive pressure of expectations after her third round upset in Tokyo.
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“There must be so many athletes that deal with depression, that deal with some kind of mental health struggle at the Game,” Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, had told HT in an earlier interview. “It’s something I’ve personally dealt with multiple times. Ever since 2014 I’ve talked openly about it because it’s important to me, because a lot of people are struggling with the same exact thing. It was hard for me to ask for help, it was hard for me to become vulnerable and show that side of me.”
Remember Sally Robbins? At the 2004 Athens Olympics, the Australian stopped rowing in the women’s eight event in the final stretch as she was too exhausted. Unable to put oar to water, she lay on her team mate’s lap. It dashed Australia’s medal hopes, and Robbins became an object of ridicule. She was accused of mental weakness with the Australian media dubbing her “Lay-down Sally”.
With some of the most iconic athletes in the world speaking openly about their mental struggles, the sporting world has come a long way since.
Phelps recalled the usual way athletes have been taught to deal with emotions, in pursuit of a single-minded goal of winning.
“I was really good at compartmentalising things, just stuffing things down and not dealing with it,” he said. “Now I’ve been able to see where it leads me and it’s a dark place, a scary place, and I don’t want to go back there, and I hope nobody else goes back there.”
Katie Ledecky, one of the world’s great swimmers, won her fifth Olympic gold on Wednesday in the newly introduced 1500m freestyle for women. But the American is aware that her defeats to younger Australian rival Ariarne Titmus in other events is being seen as a major failure.
“I’m kind of at peace with it, I kind of laugh when I see things like ‘settles for silver’,” Ledecky told reporters. “I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me or feel like silver or any other medals besides gold is a disappointment. I would much rather people be concerned about people who are really, truly struggling in life.”
Japanese swimmer Yui Ohashi, who completed a double of individual medley wins by claiming the 200m event on Wednesday, had also struggled with depression in 2019 and had wanted to give up swimming. Asked about it, she said: “I had times when I wanted to give up swimming, but I learned to accept it and turned it into a strength.”
The social isolation necessitated by the pandemic has also been hard for athletes, as it has for most people.
Biles felt the absence of social interaction in Tokyo. “Usually you hang out in the village…all that stuff. It does suck when you feel the weight of the world. There are no outlets with the amount of training that we do,” she said.
The health situation has prompted the US women’s gymnastics team to stay in a hotel. “Not saying that we don’t have a great set up. We chose that to be Covid safe, the protocols and everything,” Biles said. But the face of the Games, ahead of tennis stars Osaka and Novak Djokovic, would have preferred to feel the warmth of fellow athletes from around the world.
PV Sindhu knows only too well the kind of pressure top athletes feel. A medal-starved nation is eagerly hoping the badminton world champion would hopefully deliver gold, after her silver in Rio 2016. That in itself can be a scary thought — add to that months spent in isolation without training or competition last year and the challenges of getting back on track for the Games.
“Definitely the mental aspect plays an important part, especially during this pandemic,” she said on Wednesday. “Athletes have been really going through tough times, on and off court.”