Simone Biles’s Big Olympic Move: Embracing Vulnerability

After withdrawing, Biles assured reporters she was not injured, saying, “It’s been really stressful, this Olympic Games.” She said she wasn’t certain if she would continue to compete.

Biles’s withdrawal, Beilock said, was an attempt to take control of a situation that had seemingly spiraled out of control when she lost her sense of positioning in the air during a twisting maneuver. It was not unlike the tennis star Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from this year’s French Open rather than face what she considered invasive and dispiriting questioning from the news media. Osaka lost to Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic on Tuesday and exited in the third round of the Olympics.

The increasing willingness of athletes to speak up, Beilock said, confirms that mental health issues affect everyone. For a public that has faced the strain of a pandemic lockdown, and may soon again, Beilock added, candid acknowledgments by Biles, Osaka and others are “really important for the everyday Joe to do the same thing. It sort of gives them permission.”

Biles entered the Tokyo Olympics as more than a superstar gymnast. She was the face of the Summer Games for NBC. She had become a leading voice against sexual abuse by speaking up about the crimes of Lawrence G. Nassar, the former doctor for the United States women’s gymnastics team and Michigan State University athletics.

All the while, Biles’s corporate sponsors, fans and the news media expected her to collect gold medals like refrigerator magnets.

“Clearly Simone has been under tremendous stress,” said Steven Ungerleider, a sports psychologist in Eugene, Ore., and a former collegiate gymnast who has worked with hundreds of Olympic athletes.

As the coronavirus pandemic forced a one-year postponement of the Tokyo Games, Ungerleider said, it was extremely difficult for elite gymnasts who lacked regular access to gyms, coaches and national training camps. In May, Biles competed for the first time in 18 months. At these Olympics, she has performed before a largely empty arena, unable to feed off the energy of the crowd.

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