Only a few days earlier, Simone Biles - considered the greatest ever women’s gymnast - was honoured with her own GOAT emoji on twitter. Tom Daggett, the gymnastics analyst for US broadcasters NBC, said he would put Biles on his ‘Mount Rushmore’ of gymnasts because with her ‘‘athleticism, she does things people typically wouldn’t dream of.’’
Such pressure of expectations can be scary for a 24-year-old, even if you are a Simone Biles. Or a Naomi Osaka. It’s a sheer coincidence but on Tuesday, Osaka - the face of Tokyo Olympics who lit the Olympics flame at the opening ceremony - suffered an early shock exit in tennis while Biles pulled out midway of the women’s team final a few hours later.
It was within a few months of each other that two of the young super achievers in the world of sport came out in the open - speaking about their mental health issues. While Osaka stayed away from tennis for nearly two months and timed her comeback in the Olympics, Biles has now pulled out of the individual allround teams event on Wednesday while her participation in the other individual events look extremely unrealistic as of now. Her target of adding six more Olympic medals - to the four which she won in Rio in 2016 to confirm her status as the greatest ever in her sport in Olympics may remain unrealised.
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“I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times, ” said Biles on Instagram - a state of mind which resonated with some of the biggest achievers in sport as sympathy poured in from all quarters for the troubled superstar.
Michael Phelps, the most successful Olympian ever with 23 gold medals (28 overall), who in 2018 revealed his own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts following the 2012 Olympics, said watching Biles struggle on Tuesday “broke my heart.”
Now in Tokyo as a TV pundit for NBC, Phelps said the Olympics could be overwhelming for athletes and that he had often struggled to find support during his own career.
“The biggest thing is we all need to ask for help sometimes too when we go through those times,” Phelps said. “For me, I can say personally it was something very challenging. It was hard for me to ask for help.
Phelps may have singled out the pressure of Olympics, but the modern professional sport - where a successful sportsperson is likened to a cottage industry with her entourage of support staff, managers and commercial commitments - brings it’s own quota of pressure. And one doesn’t have to always a superstar to feel the heat.
At Wimbledon earlier this month, 18-year-old Briton Emma Raducanu came out of nowhere to reach the fourth round, only to retire from the match with what was first described as “breathing difficulties”. The teenager subsequently explained that “whole experience caught up with me”.
The biggest thing is we all need to ask for help sometimes too when we go through those times. For me, I can say personally it was something very challenging. It was hard for me to ask for help
After Raducanu’s explanation, England and Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford said that he too had suffered something similar when he was a teenager.
In 2018, NBA star Kevin Love said that he had suffered a panic attack during a match, while there are well-documented cases of mental health in often the placid environment of cricket - where performance anxiety is most often attributed for such attacks. Add to that is the pressure of the Bio Bubble, which has seen a significant rise of admissions over last one and-a-half years.
Pressures of the bubble
In an interview with AFP, Julie-Ann Tullberg, an expert in sports psychology and sports journalism at Monash University in Australia, said that “mental health has long been swept under the carpet as a reason of underperformance in high-pressure sporting events such as the Olympic Games”.
“However, athletes are now willing to talk about their pressures openly,” she said.
People deal with “performance anxiety” in all walks of life, said Tullberg, and that has been exacerbated by people across the world living in intermittent lockdowns in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. “But people are now more willing to talk about it (their mental health),” she said.
“There are support networks offered to us all the time, we’re encouraged to seek support, and people are now taking those options because they’re not so fearful of the repercussions if it’s known in their workplace that they’re struggling.”
Biles, a crusader for mental health
It’s the ability to absorb the pressure which makes the likes of a Biles or Osaka so special - but the fact remains that there can be a tipping point as well. “I have to focus on my mental health,” Biles told the media on Tuesday. “I didn’t want to go out and do something stupid and get hurt... At the end of the day we don’t want to be carried out of there on a stretcher.”
Strong words from someone, who had been a known crusader of mental health issues and spoken on it in TV interview. On Tuesday, she admitted to feeling lost during one of her exercises in mid-air - leading to a rarest of rare sight of her knees buckling during the landing.
Biles has worked with a therapist since she came forward in 2018 as a survivor of sexual abuse by former national gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Before the Tokyo Olympics, she said that the postponement of the Games also weighed heavily on her as it meant not only another year of training, but also another year of working with USA Gymnastics, which she and her fellow survivors feel failed to protect them and take accountability for the Nassar scandal.
Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said that Biles’ admission would help “normalise the conversation”.
“There has always been, within the athletic world, the emphasis on appearing physically fit and appearing mentally fit,” she told CBC/Radio-Canada. “And that can further perpetuate a kind of silent suffering and self-isolation.”
Aly Raisman, a three-time Olympic gold medallist and a former teammate of Biles, said that Biles had been under immense pressure for months leading up to Tokyo because of the weight of expectation. “There’s only so much someone can take, she’s human,” Raisman told US television.
Now what for Biles?
Where does Biles go from here? The difference between her sport and someone like Osaka’s is - truth be told - gymnastics is far more dangerous a sport where the benchmark of excellence lies in the complexities of the routine one performs - calling for the highest level of focus and risk of injuries.
After years of putting her body on the line, Biles has decided to put herself first but for all the right reasons. That’s the lesson that not just elite athletes, but everyone should learn from Biles’ choice, however shocking the call may have been.
It’s something that Biles, who has punched through all kinds of barriers with the physical feats she’s achieved, is now likely to do for biases and stigma against mental health issues as well.
If she doesn’t participate in Tokyo anymore, it’s her choice. For, as Filipino boxing legend Manny Pacquiao put it in a tweet: “Once a champion, always a champion. God Bless @Simone_Biles.”