Moments after only completing one and a half rotations on her planned two-and-a-half twisting vault, U.S. Olympic medalist Simone Biles shockingly withdrew from the artistic gymnastics all-around team final to prioritize her mental health. In doing so, Biles challenged our perception of what an Olympic role model should be. Rather than relentlessly pursuing gold medals at the expense of her health, Biles chose to put her well-being first. Showing the next generation of athletes that their mental health matters is arguably more valuable than any gold medal ever could be.
The sport of gymnastics revolves around the Olympics, and many gymnasts dedicate their lives to qualifying for and succeeding at the Games. Under the guise of relentless dedication, everything they do is focused on reaching the top of the Olympic podium; as such, it is not surprising that self-worth can become entangled with objective standards of success. In a heartbreaking tweet, Biles wrote that the outpouring of support for her actions made her realize for the first time that her value extended far beyond her accomplishments in gymnastics.
The tremendous pressure of the Games was further amplified for Biles because of the high expectations for her to win: She had not lost an all-around competition since 2013. After a somewhat shaky performance in the qualifying round — which still saw Biles qualify in first place in the all-around competition — she wrote she felt like she carried “the weight of the world” on her shoulders because of high expectations in the media. The unprecedented nature of this year’s Olympics only exacerbates this stress. COVID-19 postponed the games, extending Biles’ grueling training schedule for an additional year, and lasting COVID-19 protocols prevented Biles’ family — and a crowd — from cheering her on in Tokyo.
We had already seen Biles challenge the norms of her sport through her very presence as a strong, outspoken Black woman in a white-dominated sport. Each competition she performs skills with increasing levels of difficulty, challenging our perceptions of the human body’s limits. The difficulty ratings of her groundbreaking skills — including her recent Yurchenko double pike vault — have unfairly and consistently been undervalued by the International Gymnastics Federation to keep the field as competitive as possible and to dissuade other gymnasts from attempting them because of safety concerns.
There has long been a glorification of pushing through mental and physical injury to win medals in U.S. gymnastics. For example, Dominique Moceanu revealed she felt forced to compete with a tibial stress fracture at the 1996 Olympic Games. Likewise, the country watched in awe when fellow Magnificent Seven member Kerri Strug limped to the vault start line to perform a second vault despite severely spraining her ankle during her first attempt. The iconic image of Strug being carried to the podium by her coach to receive the gold medal was celebrated as a heroic source of inspiration, yet nobody questioned why she participated after such an injury. By choosing to put her mental health first, Biles has provided a much-needed challenge to this culture and paved the way for future gymnasts’ safety.
Different forms of abuse pervade the sport of gymnastics. Reports of emotional and sexual abuse endured by hundreds of athletes — including Biles — have recently come to light. Regardless, USA Gymnastics refuses to take accountability for what happened and fails to support survivors. In the lead-up to the games, Biles revealed she felt compelled to return to the sport to be a voice for change and to ensure survivors were not brushed aside by USA Gymnastics. While this responsibility should never have fallen on the shoulders of survivors like Biles, her example is beginning to craft an environment in which athletes feel empowered to advocate for and prioritize their health. Biles is taking back her lost autonomy and transforming the harmful culture of silence and unfaltering obedience for all those who will come after her.
To those criticizing Biles for giving up, lacking toughness or abandoning her team, I challenge them to reflect on what strength means. Biles’ decision was quite the opposite of weak; it was a decision that required an extraordinary amount of courage. Biles, her teammates and those who came before her have long been neglected by USA Gymnastics. Biles is a perfect teammate, as she could be seen enthusiastically cheering her teammates on from the floor after withdrawing from the team final. She celebrated Suni Lee’s all-around gold medal as if it were her own, truly embodying the notion that one woman’s victory is a victory for all.
I have no doubt everybody watching Biles will learn that mental health is just as important as physical health and that well-being should always be prioritized over victories. While sports, especially at the Olympic level, are about dedication, Simone Biles has taught us athletic dedication should be joyous and should be born out of love for the sport. These lessons are infinitely more important than winning a gold medal could ever be –– and they reaffirm Biles’ status as the Greatest of All Time, the self-branded GOAT. She is perhaps both the greatest gymnast and the greatest role model of all time.
Carrie McDonald is a rising sophomore in the College. Tokyo Talks appears online every other week.