Five years ago at Rio de Janeiro, Biles was the star of the Olympics, spearheading the USA women gymnastic team to their third successive gold medal. She went on to annex three more individual gold medals.
The pressure on Simone Biles was humongous. The wear and tear on her body was “unreal”, by her own admission. Once it reached a tipping point, the four-time Olympic gold medalist decided to withdraw from the women’s gymnastics team event and the individual all-around final at the Tokyo Games.
Five years ago at Rio de Janeiro, Biles was the star of the Olympics, spearheading the USA women gymnastic team to their third successive gold medal. She went on to annex three more individual gold medals. Back from Rio, the Larry Nassar story broke, that the ex-US Team doctor sexually abused underage gymnasts, including Biles. Nassar was eventually sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for his crime, but just to imagine what Biles and many of her team-mates had gone through as young athletes was very upsetting. Biles is not only an abuse survivor, she is also the only one from the group who came forward publicly to compete in Tokyo.
“I’m going to go out there and represent the USA, represent World Champions Centre, and represent black and brown girls over the world,” Biles told The New York Times ahead of the Olympics. “At the end of the day, I’m not representing USA Gymnastics,” she added.
Just consider that Biles is a 24-year-old woman who has sacrificed so much for gymnastics. In a polarised America, she has been outspoken in her disapproval of former US President Donald Trump and also strongly supported the Black Lives Matter movement. It didn’t make her popular with the right-aligned people and outlets. So the backlash she faced from certain quarters in her own country was sort of expected. Charlie Kirk, an American conservative activist and also the founder of Turning Point USA, called the gymnast a “selfish sociopath” and “a shame to this country”. “We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles,” Kirk said on his podcast, adding: “Simone Biles just showed the rest of the nation that when things get tough, you shatter into a million pieces.”
On his Fox Sports radio show, Doug Gottlieb has questioned the gymnast’s ability to handle criticism. “Generally, we don’t have any sort of critique for our female sports teams. On one hand you want to be viewed, treated, and compensated the same as the men, but on the other hand, whatever you do, just don’t be critical of us,” he said, as quoted by The Guardian.
According to some commentators, citing mental health issues for failures has become a fashionable excuse. Easy to pass judgment without the burden of accountability. For a long time now, Biles hasn’t been in the right mental space. She, in fact, opened up on Instagram, saying: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world upon my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but sometimes it’s hard, hahaha! The Olympics is no joke.”
Little wonder that Michael Phelps readily threw his weight behind Biles. The legendary swimmer, the most decorated Olympian in history with 28 medals – 23 gold medals – over five Games, struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. The candour with which he spoke about his mental health issues on the HBO Sports documentary, ‘The Weight of Gold’, was exemplary. “Yeah, I won a s..t-ton of medals. I had a great career. So what? I thought of myself as just a swimmer. Not a human being,” Phelps said in the documentary.
After Biles’ pull-out, Phelps publicly supported her. “It broke my heart. But also, if you look at it, mental health over the last 18 months is something that people are talking about,” he said on NBC’s primetime broadcast.
A big advocate for mental health, Phelps could relate to Biles’ challenges. “The Olympics is overwhelming. There are a lot of emotions that go into it. I can talk about this for an hour. The easiest way for me to say it is I think athletes, and Olympic athletes in general, we need someone who we can trust. Somebody who can let us be ourselves, listen and allow us to become vulnerable. Somebody who is not gonna come try to fix us.
“We’re human beings, nobody is perfect. It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to go through ups and downs and emotional roller coasters. I felt like I was carrying, as Simone said, the weight of the world on my shoulders. It’s a tough situation.”
Maybe, Roger Federer is an example to follow here. Arguably the greatest tennis player in history, the 40-year-old now plays for his sheer love of the game. He still remains top-class as a player, but he no longer seems to be carrying the pressure of winning Grand Slams. Then again, maybe it’s easier for a Swiss to go light. His country or countrymen allows him that mental peace. Also, tennis is an individual sport.
For someone like Biles, such liberty is probably not allowed in a country which is still working to offset the gender gap and the alleged racial bias in all walks of life.
Mind, Sachin Tendulkar didn’t have Federer’s leeway either. For more than two decades, Tendulkar carried the expectations of a billion people. Indian fans hardly gave him the licence to fail.