Just a few days before the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony, my mom and I watched the gymnastics comedy Stick It. The movie is about a star gymnast fighting for redemption after dropping out of a World Championship right before the floor event. Reality seemed to mirror fiction on Tuesday when Simone Biles, the star of the US gymnastics team who is widely considered the greatest gymnast of all time, withdrew from competition during the Olympic team final.
Biles botched her vault attempt, not performing the full trick she planned to do and taking a huge step upon landing, before being led away from the floor by a team trainer. The US gymnastics team said she would not finish the final, leaving the rest of her team in dire straits as they needed her monstrous scores to secure America’s third gold medal in a row. The team would ultimately finish with a silver medal behind the Russian Olympic Committee.
The media initially suspected Biles had suffered an injury, but she later confirmed that she withdrew from the team final due to ‘mental health’ issues.
Biles explained that she was struggling with the immense pressure to win the competition and the expectations that come with being ‘the GOAT’ (greatest of all time). She said she feared she could injure herself physically attempting to perform difficult gymnastics skills while in a fragile mental state.
‘Whenever you get in a high stress situation, you kind of freak out,’ Biles told reporters. ‘I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being.’
Biles’s argument that she could have been injured if she continued to compete makes sense; it could be quite dangerous for her to throw one of her eponymous tricks if she got ‘lost in the air’ — which is how one of the announcers described Biles’s vault attempt. However, the fact that Biles was able to become so mentally unfocused in the first place is quite stunning for an Olympic-caliber athlete, let alone the best gymnast ever.
The timing of Biles’s decision suggests it had something to do with the mistakes she made during the team qualifying round. Biles flew way off the mat during her floor exercise, took a major step off the vault landing strip and bobbled part of her balance beam routine. In sports, mental toughness is key. It is a necessity to be able to recover from errors like this without having a breakdown. Biles, however, has not lost an all-around competition in eight years and emblazoned one of her Olympics leotards with a goat, referencing her ‘GOAT’ status. Is it all that surprising that someone this overconfident — some might say arrogant — would struggle to mentally rebound from a poor performance?
Biles also told reporters that she thought she would cost the team too many points if she stayed in the final. It’s hard to buy that excuse. Even with her many mistakes during the qualifying round, Biles still posted the highest score in the competition. The starting difficulty level for her tricks is so much higher than the other competitors that she can outscore them by a full point margin even when incurring major deductions for stepping out of bounds or falling.
With a substandard Biles in the qualifying round, the US finished second to Russia by about one point. Without Biles in the final on Tuesday, they finished second by nearly three and a half points. Biles was much more accurate when she gave this more selfish explanation for her decision: ‘I have to do what’s right for me.’
‘It’s OK sometimes to sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself,’ Biles said.
Maybe, but Biles’s decision also affected her teammates and her country. She chose not to leave until the middle of the competition, when it would have the biggest impact on the other US gymnasts. Several of them had to compete last-minute in events for which they had not prepared. And, in taking the pressure off herself, Biles unloaded even more onto her three much-younger teammates. Will the media and the US gymnastics team consider the effect that Biles’s withdrawal may have had on their mental health?
Biles has been lauded on social media for her decision to drop out. You wonder whether she would have garnered more praise from Instagram activists for bagging another team gold or ‘practicing self-care’. I guess we’ll never know!
If the gymnast’s mental state is really so poor that she feels justified in letting down her team, then she should sit out the rest of the Olympics. It would be quite dishonorable if she took multiple days off of competition, at the expense of her teammates, just to come back and rack up some individual medals.
Biles may be the most skilled gymnast ever, but a true champion is someone who perseveres even when the competition gets tough. Biles’s teammates, who still took home a silver medal despite unthinkable circumstances, should be remembered as the genuine heroes of the 2020 US Olympic gymnastics team.