Four-time Olympic gold medallist Simone Biles will not be competing in Thursday’s all-around competition after withdrawing from the team finals because of a mental health issue, according to a statement from USA Gymnastics.
“Simone will continue to be evaluated daily to determine whether or not to participate in next week’s event finals,” the statement read.
On Tuesday, during the women’s gymnastics team event, the US’s superstar gymnast was preparing for her vault. She was due to complete an Amanar, a complex vault with two-and-a-half twists so difficult that it carries a score half a point higher than most other vaults. If perfected it would net Biles, and in turn the US team, the points needed to edge out the Russians and towards Olympic gold.
Whether it was the pressure of coming to Tokyo as one the biggest names – having won four gold medals in Rio – the extra year of training and anticipation during a pandemic, which has been epitomised by the ominous silence of an empty Ariake Gymnastics Centre, when Biles hit the springboard, something was amiss.
“I lost my bearings,” she said. In mid-air, Biles flung her arms out to slow her rotation to complete only one-and-a-half twists, landing low on the ground and lunging forward to stabilise herself. She left the mat visibly unhappy.
Within minutes, USA Gymnastics confirmed that Biles had withdrawn from the competition, citing "medical issues". Biles later confirmed in a press conference that she pulled out to "focus on her mental health", saying that she had been increasingly stressed as the Olympics had unfolded, so much so that her body was shaking when she was trying to rest.
“I felt it would be better to take a backseat and work on my mindfulness. I knew the girls would do a great job. I didn’t want to risk the team a medal for my screw ups,” Biles said.
The US team went on to claim silver, with the Russian Olympic Committee taking gold by a margin of just 3.5 points.
Biles' withdrawal sparked renewed conversations about mental health and asked questions whether enough is being done to protect athletes' wellbeing. There was renewed scrutiny on US Gymnastics and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC).
Biles was one of the dozens of athletes who were subjected to sexual abuse from former US gymnastics coach Larry Nassar. At the time of the allegations, Nassar’s trial and sentencing, Biles battled with crippling depression and mental ill-health.
At the time, the USOPC underwent radical change, overhauling everything from its mission statement to the way it allocates resources. One key part of the USOPC overhaul included its increased emphasis on mental health counselling, indicating a complete culture change.
“We’re deploying every resource that’s available to her, and we want to give her space to make choices that are going to be right for her,” Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the USOPC said of Biles. “We can’t know the answer because none of us live in her shoes.”
On Wednesday, Biles withdrew from the women’s all-around competition, giving up the chance to defend her coveted title. She has not decided if she will compete in the event finals scheduled later in the week.
Biles' decision to withdraw from the team event almost certainly cost the US a gold medal, and her subsequent withdrawal from the individual events will likely reduce the overall US haul, as she had been expected to win as many as four golds.
None of that matters, insists Hirshland.
“These are not the USOPC’s medals, these are the athletes’ medals,” she said. “We can’t lose site of that. They make these choices. They do the work. They perform, and we are simply here to create an environment in which they can be successful.”
With the world watching and talking about it, Biles can include being a role model for young competitors everywhere to prioritise their mental health as part of her legacy.
“Put mental health first. If you don’t then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and not succeed as much as you want to,” said Biles. “It’s OK to sit out the big competitions and focus on yourself. It shows how strong a competitor and person you really are, rather than just battle through it.”