Biles said the pressure of being the face of the Tokyo Games was mammoth. The official word, after medical exams, was that this was not a physical problem but rather an issue of mental health. Biles was worried less about her body failing, and more about “fighting” what was going on inside her head.
Biles later explained that she wasn’t herself, especially on a vault that had her confused as she twisted in space — a phenomenon gymnasts call “the twisties.” She described how she finished that vault in a state entirely unfamiliar to her. She had lost her spatial awareness.
For the first time since we’ve been witnessing her mastery, Biles was openly floundering in self-doubt.
With her decision, Biles drew parallels to tennis star Naomi Osaka, who dropped out of the French Open earlier this year, describing mental health problems and the trauma of dealing with the media. Osaka had been willing to pay the hefty fines for missing the mandatory press conferences at the tournament, but that led to controversy and she then opted out altogether.
Perhaps, I initially thought, there were lines to be connected between Osaka’s anxiety and Biles’s current Olympics psyche. Who are we to tell Biles she should toughen up and get over her temporary slip from perfection? I was already on Osaka’s side, with compassion for her need to tend to her mental health.
But the clear difference — or so it seemed at first — between Osaka’s French Open withdrawal and Biles’s choice was the word “team.” Osaka was playing singles at Roland Garros. Her decision affected her alone (although Roland-Garros officials would probably beg to differ). Biles withdrew from a commitment to her team. She stepped down from representing her country.
Billie Jean King is well known for the expression “pressure is a privilege.” To be sure, not many other athletes — perhaps Michael Phelps, Tom Brady and a very few others — know what it is to have all the world’s eyes laser-focused on you, to carry the highest possible expectations with your every move.
But wasn’t this the crucial moment for the GOAT — the “Greatest of All Time,” a label Biles has embraced — to rise up as no other athlete could? Wasn’t this the time for Biles to go out to the vault with her coach, perhaps her teammates, and do her routine over and over again, to cure her case of the twisties? I’m not going to demean Olympic silver medals — which the U.S. team won without Biles — but would the team in fact have had a much better chance for gold with a Biles who had tackled her demons and risen to the occasion?
That was my critical outlook on Tuesday. But now, Biles has withdrawn from the individual all-around competition — her sport’s most vaunted individual event. And if the Greatest of All Time, at the Olympic Games that are the supposed and possibly last pinnacle of her career, states that she can’t trust herself, who are we to say otherwise?
Gymnastics events require dangerous, almost unreal maneuvers. Were Biles to go out there lacking confidence — were she to spin out of control — there could be serious consequences. It is not an overstatement to warn that an egregious mistake, whatever its precipitating cause, could result in paralysis.
Now the flip side of Biles’s leaving her teammates to compete without her comes into play. She ultimately determined that she couldn’t summon her best, and that her teammates had a better chance of scoring well without her. She opened for them a spot in the individual all-around that she would have taken — giving another gifted athlete a chance to go for medals, to chase the dreams they’ve worked so hard for.
The same decision that on Tuesday seemed to some of us unsportsmanlike now, on Wednesday, seems a historic sacrifice. Now, Biles’s contention that she believes she is helping the team by not competing becomes not only authentic, but also rational thinking.
Next week, Biles may or may not find her way back into competition for each of the four individual events: balance beam, uneven bars, vault, floor exercise. But I, for one, have catapulted back onto the super Simone Biles fan wagon, rooting for the best for gymnastics’ GOAT — in her sport, and in her life.