The announcement came in the wake of the American athlete’s decision to step back from the women’s gymnastics team final Tuesday. “I have to focus on my mental health,” Biles said, acknowledging that she had been struggling with the intense pressure.
Director General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom praised Biles for her honesty, tweeting it was “right and brave” and calling on others to look after their mental health. “We need to protect it in whatever way works for each of us,” he tweeted.
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore said she was “proud” of Biles, calling her choice “a true sign of strength and courage in the face of intense pressure."
In the U.S., Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) also praised the star, tweeting: “I stand with Simone Biles. I still stand with Naomi Osaka. Your health and peace matters. You’re reminding Black women that we can take the space we need for ourselves.”
Former first lady Michelle Obama said, “We are proud of you and we are rooting for you.”
Yet in Russia, where the Russian Olympic Committee women’s gymnastics team took gold after Biles withdrew, there was little empathy over her decision.
“That’s right,” crowed one sports website Championnat, “you need to heal your nerves after defeat by our gymnasts,” it tweeted with a smiling emoji and a grim photo of Biles.
Russian daily sports newspaper Sport-Express headlined a story on Biles’ “inglorious end.” Sport-Express writer Dmitry Kuznetsov questioned the validity of withdrawing on mental health grounds. “Simply put, Biles could not stand it. Including the pressure of the Russian team,” he wrote.
British television personality Piers Morgan, who also criticized Japan’s Osaka for quitting the French Open in May to preserve her mental health as “narcissistic,” slammed Biles on Wednesday, writing that she had “let down” her “teammates, fans and country.”
Osaka, the tennis star, has said she long faced pressure under the ever-watching eye of the public and had struggled with anxiety. In Japan, where mental health issues are heavily stigmatized, popular comments on Yahoo slammed Osaka, who lit the Olympic cauldron and had a surprise defeat in Tokyo.
“If you’re really depressed as the news outlets say, watching your attitudes, they’re no different from a child,” one comment read. “You shouldn’t use depression as a shield to get out of inconvenient things.”
Many others on social media Wednesday pointed out the physical dangers that come with performing as a gymnast, arguing that if one’s state of mind is not in a healthy state, consequences can be life-changing or even fatal.
Sports editor and former English gymnast Alison Kervin slammed critics of Biles as ignorant, demanding that social media trolls “grow up.”
“When I trained as a gymnast, I watched a teammate land on her neck. She never walked again. Yelena Mukhina broke her neck performing a Salto and died from the injuries. Gymnastics is incredibly dangerous,” she tweeted.
And even in Russia, Sport-Express columnist Natalia Maryanchik said Biles’s story “is about everything being possible.”
“Biles was clearly not used to going out on the platform when she didn’t feel 100 percent. She is GOAT, the greatest of all time. She cannot and should not lose to anyone.”
She wrote that Russian athletes would likely have hidden their pride and pushed on for the sake of the team, but every athlete had the right to their choice on whether to compete.
Earlier this month, England’s soccer stars spoke out about the mental health pressures and racist attacks they faced following the European Championship final which saw England lose to Italy following a nail-biting round of penalty kicks.
For England’s Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka, the three young Black players who missed their kicks during the shootout, all were subjected to a wave of abuse and harassment on social media that led to calls for officials to better protect the psychological health of players.
For retired gymnast and two-time Olympian Alexandra Raisman, the decision from Biles was sobering reminder: “Olympic athletes are human,” she tweeted.
Robyn Dixon in Moscow and Simon Denyer in Tokyo contributed to this report.