Editorial: What Simone Biles’ latest feat at the Tokyo Olympics shows us about ourselves
Right now, Simone Biles’ fans must be wondering if they will see her out-of-this-world talents again at the Tokyo Olympics. They may never have imagined that this young woman — who set seemingly impossible new goals for herself even when doing less still would have set her on a different plane from all others in the sport — could withdraw from the team competition one day, and then the individual all-around right after.
What’s truly remarkable about the past couple of days isn’t so much that Biles pulled herself from the running but that she candidly told the public that the issue was her strained mental health, not a strained muscle. Just as noteworthy: Support for her decision, both among the public and in the sports and celebrity worlds, has far outweighed the occasional rants among the Twitterati.
It may have helped Biles to see another elite young competitor, tennis player Naomi Osaka, also put her mental health first when she refused in May to participate in the mandatory news conferences at the French Open, a tournament from which she ended up withdrawing. Osaka had given clues for months that she was under considerable strain but said she hadn’t wanted to reveal her mental health struggles. She felt pressured to by the intense scrutiny and criticism of her. The media were less kind than they have been to Biles, perhaps because the lack of access to Osaka hit them where it hurt. Or maybe they’ve seen the error of their ways since then.
Another high-profile case worth noting: Shortly before the Games started, sprinter Sha’carri Richardson lost her shot at competing because she had used marijuana — legally under the laws of Oregon, where she was at the time — to help her cope with news of her mother’s death.
Perhaps it’s not coincidental that all three are young women of color, which may have added the stress of feeling that they should be strong, heroic and role-model material. But increasingly, pundits and the public are recognizing that Biles, Osaka and Richardson have shown that they are all three of those things. They placed their well-being over athletic glory at crucial moments and, by being open, delivered an unspoken message that others should feel able to prioritize their own well-being.
They’re almost certainly not the first to drop from a competition because of mental-health issues. But just as celebrities used to be hospitalized for “exhaustion,” some athletes likely hid their decisions under pretexts of pulled muscles and injured joints. They certainly didn’t come out publicly with the information that they had been sexually abused by a team doctor or other trusted authority figure, as Biles and other female gymnasts have done.
It’s been a slow societal creep toward admitting that many of us struggle from time to time with the need for emotional and mental support and treatment. Not just superstars at the precipice of massive success or failure, but also everyday heroes trying to raise a family when wages are too low, or excel at college while wondering how they’ll ever pay off the loans, or provide care to a family member with Alzheimer’s disease. Even dementia used to be something we hid in a closet — or, as the cliché goes, in the attic.
But just as the news of Rock Hudson’s death made Americans sit up and pay more attention to AIDS, the willingness of Biles, Osaka and Richardson to admit to their own vulnerabilities will, we hope, bring home a realization that mental and emotional struggles plague many and in many different ways, whether it’s anxiety, depression or more severe psychosis.
Perhaps the odd timing of this very odd Olympics helped. Understanding has grown during the long, trying months of the pandemic that many of us have moments when coping is difficult. People openly admitted they felt sad, isolated and traumatized. Parents who 30 years ago would have hidden any signs of emotional difficulties in their kids are now clamoring for more mental-health services at schools. Close to 30% of American adults saw a therapist during the pandemic, and a third of those who didn’t faced specific barriers that blocked their access to one, such as the cost.
Perhaps because of Biles’ honesty about her struggle, that slow creep of public understanding about mental health will take a flying Yurchenko vault forward.
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