Simone Biles withdraws from Olympics finals

Simone Biles, 4-time Olympic gold medallist, has withdrawn from the team and all-around gymnastics finals at the Tokyo Olympics because of mental health.

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Ernest Vicente
Novice
July 31, 2021 5:01 pm

After Simone Biles had withdrawn from the gymnastics team finals she was asked what her later goal at the Olympic Games was. Simone replied that her goal would be to focus on her wellbeing and that “there’s more to life than just gymnastics.” This is a very mature attitude. In any sport, athletes have a limited shelf life. They all know this. There will be a time when they have to step out of the limelight and attention will go to a new crop of up-and-coming sports athletes.

For many athletes their identity revolves around their chosen sport and their accomplishments. Can we blame them? The hours of intense training for years on end since they were a little child will make anyone associate their identity with their sport. Their mood will often be dictated by their success and failures in their sport and it may come to a point where little else matters. They’ve sacrificed too much for anything else to take priority.

A good example of this is Kurt Angle, an amateur wrestling Olympic Gold Medallist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and later professional wrestler for the WWE. Angle competed at the Olympics with an injured neck and took regular analgesic injections so he could wrestle pain-free. It was a very risky choice which could have led to long-term consequences such as paralysis but to him, his sport and the gold medal was his highest priority. It was his identity.

We see a similar phenomenon in boxing. A time comes when a boxer isn’t as fast as they used to be. They can’t handle the punishment they used to take. So they hang up the gloves and retire. The problem is their entire identity for 10 or 20 years has revolved around boxing. When they quit, they don’t know what else to do. No more interviews, sponsorship opportunities and crowds cheering their name. They aren’t prepared for the emptiness they experience when they leave the limelight. This is why so many come out of retirement and want to keep going. They have no other identity and feel lost without boxing. But the problem is they are no longer the ferocious lion they used to be. Older, slower and weaker, many face the harsh reality the hard way. Some come out of retirement only to receive a beating from someone they could have handled with ease in their prime. It’s a difficult lesson that results in a bruised ego, tainted legacy and confusion about what to do next.

Simon Biles’ decision to pull out of the gymnastics finals is a mature decision. It must have been very difficult to make the call, however Simone understands that there is a life after gymnastics. Gymnastics isn’t Simone’s identity. Her transition into a life without the spotlight and roaring fans will be much smoother with this understanding. As Simone herself posted in a recent Instagram post, “I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”

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Russell Bumak
Novice
August 1, 2021 11:16 am

On 20 October 2000, Andrew Golota, a Polish professional boxer standing 6’4 and weighing 240 lb, entered the ring to face Iron Mike Tyson in a bout billed as the Showdown in Motown. Within the first round Golota had taken some heavy shots, had a cut above his left eye and was knocked down. As he sat on his stool before the second round, he told his trainer to stop the fight. His trainer, Al Certo, refused and encouraged him to go on.

Golota survived round 2 but before the start of round 3, he had had enough. Golota didn’t want to continue. His cornermen berated him, threatened him and tried to force his mouthguard into his mouth. As Golota walked away from the ring the crowd booed him and pelted him with bottles and cups. Commentators described it as an “outrageous display of cowardice”. In the post-fight interview he was visibly distressed when asked about the fans he had let down.

It later transpired that Golota had received a concussion, herniated disc and a fractured cheekbone. The reason I have related this story is because it is the athlete that knows themselves best. Who knows what would have happened if he was forced to continue? In a similar vein, what could have happened if Simone Biles decided to ignore her mental health? In my mind her decision to step aside is 100% the correct decision. No one else but her knows the full extent of what she’s feeling. Whether it is the ‘twisties’, a sensation whereby you lose your bearings, or other pressures, continuing to compete in such a state could have resulted in serious injury.

In times of pressure, only you know how much more you can tolerate or if it is time to step aside. Simone Biles could have continued. There’s little doubt about that. But her opening performances were way below her usual standard, especially when viewing her from the perspective of the greatest gymnast of all time. Withdrawing from competition means she will be in a better space to compete again, if she so desires, and that she has put the team’s success above her individual success. In my mind, this is to be applauded.

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Jason Ng
Potential
August 7, 2021 9:41 am

Having watched videos about Simone Biles and been on her Instagram and Twitter pages, I can see a sizeable number of people saying she quit, wasn’t mentally tough and let her team down. I might have had the exact same attitude. The difference is that I, like so many others, have experienced what it’s like to struggle with mental health. I get the feeling that those who are quick to judge Simone and call her weak do not truly understand how debilitating mental health can be.

I was diagnosed with an anxiety condition about 10 years ago. I can’t tell you how difficult it would be for me to do something simple as just sit in a coffee shop and have a drink. There was a mental block that no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t overcome it. My brain would give me a sensation of real panic. I used to read up about this condition and how to overcome it. Exposure therapy was recommended. I read that in order to get past it, the brain had to get used to being in the environment that was causing so much fear. After being in that environment, the theory was that the brain would realise it’s nothing to be afraid of and wouldn’t give me the panic sensations that were so overwhelming. I would go into coffee shops over and over again, trying my very best to overcome this condition but would fail each time, leaving the coffee shop in a panic. It was such a demoralising time for me. I used to think to myself that I couldn’t do the simplest things that even a child could do.

To someone unfamiliar with mental health issues, they can easily dismiss this and would tell me to toughen up. Believe me, I would have done anything to “toughen up” and get over this problem. I ended up having to get therapy and needing medication. It wasn’t easy to come to terms with it, but these are the cards I’ve been dealt, I would say to myself. Ever since this experience I have always been more circumspect and not so quick to judge others who are going through any mental issues. Those who haven’t been through it really don’t understand how it affects you.

In the case of Simone Biles, no one else can judge what’s going on in her head and what she is feeling. It is frustrating to see throwaway comments from people who think they have a right to judge her, telling her not to be so weak. I’m no athlete by any means but you can’t be an elite, world-class gymnast and be “weak”. If that were the case, she would have never reached the level she has.

Paulina Klaman
Novice
August 1, 2021 10:00 pm

Gymnastics is a very tough sport. You need a combination of strength, speed, agility and concentration. Honing these skills since childhood to reach the pinnacle of gymnastics means Simone Biles’s decision couldn’t have been easy. It’s not like she thought, meh, I’ll quit. So many thoughts will have run through her mind and she likely will have flipped back and forth on her decision, considering the implications of each.

As others have rightly pointed out, continuing to compete when she didn’t feel fully present could have been disastrous. A memory that serves as a good reminder of how dangerous gymnastics-gone-wrong can be is the vault competition in the Sydney 2000 Olympics. In this event the organizers had set the height of the vault too low. Gymnast after gymnast crashed into the mat after propelling themselves from a vault height they were unaccustomed to. Each crash was an injury waiting to happen. For a few competitors this sadly was the case. I still remember the Chinese team coaches having to carry their gymnast off the mat as she held her ankle in pain.

Biles told reporters that she didn’t trust herself as much as she used to and she’s more nervous when she does gymnastics. As a snowboarder I can completely relate. Whenever I go snowboarding I always see little kids having skiing and snowboarding lessons. They aren’t afraid of falling over. They have no fear. I used to be like that. But now it is a different story. The sight of a slightly steeper slope will make me panic and the confidence I once had is no longer there.

In addition Biles is not having as much fun anymore. She also told reporters, “It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.” When something you once enjoyed becomes a chore and you are not doing it for yourself anymore, the passion won’t stick around. I’m gathering that there might even be an aversion or bitterness toward gymnastics for Biles. Her association with gymnastics looks to have taken a bad turn whereby she feels the effort she’s putting in is for other people. Continuing to compete when she is having these feelings will only exacerbate the situation. A break from gymnastics may just be the best thing for her right now.

Abi Ortega
Novice
August 2, 2021 6:57 pm

Simone Biles is such a recognizable athlete. At a height of 142cm the phrase ‘big things come in small packages’ sounds just right for Simone. As one of the best – if not the best ever – gymnasts, whatever decision she made, people would have had something to say about it.

Simone has faced a considerable amount of criticism. Some have accused her of pulling out of the competition because she knew she wasn’t on proper form to win a gold medal. Others have said that she has set a bad example. When the going gets tough, the tough get going quit!? Comparisons are also being made between Simone and Kerri Strug, a former US gymnastics Olympian who was injured during competition but continued to perform.

Ironically those using Kerri Strug’s name to criticize Simone probably haven’t seen that Kerri Strug has come out in support of Simone. Also some people are rethinking the heroic moment in which Strug decided to take another shot at the vault despite her injury. Should she have done it? Was it correct that her coach at the time told her that she had to go one more time? Many are coming to realize that they have been looking at Strug’s Olympic moments with rose-tinted glasses. People wanted to see a heroic gymnast fighting through injury to win a gold medal. They have conveniently ignored the image of a terrified girl being pushed to compete when she was in acute pain.

Simone taking the decision not to compete is empowering. Not just for her, but also for so many other people who look up to her. Wellbeing and health over medals is the message. It is a decision Simone made, not one that was made for her. Often the Olympics is meant to be an event that inspires the next generation. In a twist of fate, Simone has inspired millions more by not performing than she would have inspired by continuing.

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Niharika Khatri
Novice
August 2, 2021 4:54 pm

Simone Biles has been medically evaluated every day and has now also dropped out from the uneven bars and vault finals. She has received much praise because she is showing that it is ok to openly talk about mental health. In the past, concerns about mental health would have been swept aside. You could have been labelled ‘soft’ or told to ‘toughen up’. With a public figure being candid about her struggles, it will help others open up and seek support.

To see how far we have come lets go back to World War 2. During the Allied invasion of Italy in 1944, General George Patton, Commander of the Seventh US Army, visited an evacuation hospital. When he saw a soldier suffering from battle-shock, Patton asked him what the problem was. The soldier replied that he couldn’t take it. Patton went into a rage, slapped and pulled the soldier out of the tent and shouted at him, “You gutless bastard. You’re going back to the front!“. A week later Patton met another solider suffering from battle-shock. Patton pointed his gun at the soldier and threatened to shoot him for being a coward. [Source: Chapter 32, The Second World War, Antony Beevor].

There has been a stigma associated with mental health in the past. People would be afraid they’d be labelled ‘crazy’ for talking about such things. This is now ebbing away. Examples from Simone Biles and other high-profile individuals will move the needle for mental health. Once thought of something to be supressed, it is now something we can express; for competitors and non-competitors alike.

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