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The Truth About Simone Biles: Addressing Mental Health Stigma
24-year-old Simone Biles, a Black American gymnast who struck gold four times at the 2016 Rio Olympics, shocked the world earlier last week with her announcement at the Tokyo Olympics: she would be withdrawing from two of the four Olympic events. Biles, who did not appear to be physically injured, cited her mental health as the reason for her withdrawal.
“For anyone saying I quit, I didn’t quit, my mind and body are simply not in sync as you can see here,” said Biles on Friday in an Instagram post. “I don’t think you realize how dangerous this is on hard/competition surface. Nor do I have to explain why I put health first. Physical health is mental health.”
After announcing her decision on the 28th of July, Simone Biles has been the subject of intense public controversy and growing media slander. While some applaud her courage in taking steps to prioritize her physical and mental well-being, many individuals continue to drag her for her “inability to handle pressure” in the limelight of the Olympic Games.
Society oftentimes deludes itself into believing it is getting closer towards greater mental health inclusivity and acceptance. However, the media’s reaction to Simone Bile’s Olympic withdrawal exemplifies just how far we are from truly erasing mental health stigma.
For Simone Biles, her decision to withdraw was driven by a number of factors. While many individuals call out her “weakness” in being unable to handle high-level pressure, many fail to recognize the correlation that exists between Biles’ mental health and her physical performance. With four gymnastics terms named solely after her, the skills Biles performs are impossibly difficult for other Olympic gymnasts to successfully land. As a result, if not adequately prepared both mentally and physically, Biles risks putting her own life at risk.
“I would’ve loved to have ended up in a wheelchair to appease a bunch of people who didn’t give a sh*t about gymnastics until a week ago,” Biles stated on Twitter.
Instead of perpetuating mental health stigma by criticizing this Olympian, who took the basic necessary steps to prioritize her own health, society should be respecting her decision and the bravery it took to make. We also must look to contextualize the situation that Biles was put under: reevaluating the socioeconomic system that places such immense pressure on a young Olympians’ shoulders.
The Weight of The World
When it feels like you have the “weight of the world” watching you, as Simone Biles suggested on Instagram, this pressure can unsurprisingly thwart athletic performance, threaten an athlete’s own health, and place an entire team’s victory in jeopardy. This phenomenon has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has prevented athletes from having access to their support systems throughout the games.
“The whole tournament has been so different to what I’m used to,” cited Great Britain’s Jade Jones, who recently lost in women’s tae kwon in the round of 16. “Usually I have my whole family there, so when I am scared when I come out, them cheering gives me that extra push to go for it. I got trapped in that fear mode today” (Wired). Moreover, with the looming presence of social media, not only are athletes physically isolated from their friends and family, but they’re also concurrently exposed to media slander escalating across their news feeds.
Many individuals argue that this criticism, this pressure, inevitably comes with being a high-performing Olympic athlete. For someone like Simone Biles, who is one of the greatest female athletes in the history of her sport, it is understandable why the “weight of the world” has been placed on her shoulders. Fans fervently wait to see her win the United States gold.
However when we take this approach, we’re inherently fostering mental health stigma that prevents athletes from getting the help that they need. Society glamorizes the idea of being an Olympian, but we’re not ready to address the hidden consequences that accompany the title. In a recent consensus statement published by the International Olympic Committee, researchers found that among elite athletes, rates of anxiety and depression are as high as 45%. Even as world-renowned champions at their sport, Olympians are humans subject to the same mental health obstacles that plague the rest of humanity. Whether it be American skateboarder Nyjah Huston, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, or American sprinter Allyson Felix, more athletes are slowly beginning to publically disclose their struggles against mental health (Insider).
Rather than calling these individuals weak or expecting them to possess an impenetrable and unrealistic barrier of mental toughness, these Olympians should be praised for their willingness to be transparent with the public, to put their own health first, and to bravely fulfill their part in uprooting mental health stigma.
The Black Experience in Olympic-Level Sports
For an athlete like Simone Biles, many individuals fail to account for the racial perspective likely influencing Biles’ withdrawal in the Tokyo Olympics. Even as we attempt to continue moving away from racial quotas, systemic discrimination is still ingrained in the DNA of our country, one such example being high-level sports.
Black Americans have historically been marginalized at the Olympic games. News broke out last month of track star Sha’Carri Richardson, who was disqualified from the games after testing positive for cannabis. Richardson reported using substances to cope with the death of her biological mother, as she was situated in Oregon where cannabis was legal. Despite the fact that Richardson’s suspension will be over by the time the Olympic track and field competition begins, she will remain ineligible to compete due to her Olympic trials performance being completely erased.
Richardson is just one example of how the “outdated, rigid rules rooted in racism are setting Black Olympians up to fail,” as the list of marginalized Black athletes at the hands of the Olympic games goes on– dating back hundreds of years (The Cut). The decision to disqualify Richardson was not fueled by racial discrimination, as Richardson undeniably disregarded Olympic standards. However, the long-outdated rule criminalizing cannabis– a mental health relaxant– that led to Richardson’s disqualification was primarily created to target minorities in both the criminal justice system and high-level sports. This rule clearly still impacts Black athletes today.
One of the fundamental issues resulting from this discriminatory system is the insurmountable amount of pressure placed on the Black athletes remaining in the games. These Olympians, like Simone Biles, carry the burden of being the only ones left to represent Black America, which puts more pressure on them to be “perfect” and fulfill the expectations cast upon them by their skin color.
“I think that it is indicative of something that has existed since Blacks began participating in mainstream sports,” says sociologist Harry Edwards in NPR. “From that point, they became the focus of not just athletic performance and excellence but also of all of the aspirations of Black people in this country and many of the fears of mainstream white society about Black excellence. That’s a lot of weight on the shoulders of people who, in many instances, are just barely young adults while at the same time focusing on their principal goal, which is athletic achievement. That’s a lot of pressure.”
What all this speaks to is the fact that Simone Biles, one of the greatest athletes in the history of her sport, bears the expectations to not only sustain her Olympic-winning athletic excellence, but to represent Black excellence as well.
Understanding the gravity of Biles’ situation– and taking the time to empathize with the spotlight she has been cast under– is the key to fighting mental health stigma and embracing open conversation as we move forward.
Simone Biles is Tackling Mental Health Stigma
There will always be critics who choose to attack Simone Biles for the decision she inevitably made.
“She is a sociopath,” exclaimed right-wing podcaster Charlie Kirk on Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the games. “We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles,” he said. “Simone Biles just showed the rest of the nation that when things get tough, you shatter into a million pieces.”
Charlie Kirk, and the remaining critics rampant across social media, are deluded. Simone Biles is an incredible Black athlete who has led her country to gold more times than any other Olympic gymnast. Simone Biles is a victim of sexual predator Larry Nassar, and yet she still stands today as the only remaining victim left on the US National Team. Simone Biles is a courageous 24-year-old woman who recognized that it was time to put her own health over her sport, a decision that would enable the US team the best chance at success.
Rather than slandering her name and perpetuating mental health stigma across social media, society should seek to recognize the characteristics in this Olympian that are to be honored. Simone Biles created an opportunity to revolutionize the mental health conversation, and she has enabled other Olympians to continue following in her footsteps.
“Other athletes that might have struggled with similar issues now feel like it’s OK for them to talk about it,” said Ben Miller, president of California-based Well Being Trust, to Reuters. “There’s something very powerful in that moment.”