Simone Biles is the hero the Olympics, and mental health awareness, needs right now

My family tend to get the lion’s share of the TV time in our house. When it isn’t my children watching Horrible Histories or The Simpsons, it’s my husband watching Top Gear or Family Guy. I get very little in the way of viewing choice.
But for one summer every four years I am in charge of the TV remote for two glorious weeks as, along with viewers around the world, I settle my bum into a comfy groove on the sofa to watch Team GB and their fellow Olympians from other countries compete at the heights of human endurance.

The main events I love to watch are swimming, track and field, and the gymnastics. The gymnastics is incredible to watch, it is grace and power perfectly mixed. You find yourself amazed at the twists and turns these sportspeople can make, how they can stick the landing without a move, and wince every time they hit the floor or miss their footing. Team GB has a strong gymnastic pedigree, although I am aware it has suffered some controversy in the last twelve months. But for this Olympics I was looking forward to seeing Max Whitlock on the pommel house and see what the new crop of female gymnasts could do.
As ever the competition was tough. Russia put in some brilliant performances, as did China and Japan, with other countries pushing hard. But the team to watch has always been the USA. This year was going to be no different. Putting aside a very capable mens team, the female team features Sunisa Lee, an 18 year old powerhouse who puts on the hardest uneven bars routine in the world, Jade Carey who has the potential to pull off a move of such difficulty that it will be named after her if she lands it on Monday, as well as Grace McCallum, MyKayla Skinner, and Jordan Chiles.

Leading the team, the most decorated gymnast in America and widely considered the greatest female gymnast of all time, Simone Biles. I root wholeheartedly for Team GB, but even as a Brit you have to respect Biles for her sheer ability, talent, and focus. So it was a huge surprise to see her lose her bearings and step out of bounds on the floor routine, and then get lost in her mid-air routine duing the vault. Following this she left the competition hall; word then came that there was a health issue that meant she could not move any further in the all around competition.
Thankfully there was no physical injury, but Biles withdrew due to mental health issues. She later explained she was suffering from ‘the twisties’, a problem that can afflict gymnasts, when their brain and body simply refuse to work in sync. It can be dangerous for the gymnast who is suffering with it. If their spatial awareness fails in the air they can land badly and suffer serious injury.

The announcement later followed that Biles was withdrawing from the team event to minimise the stress she had been under, and prioritise her mental well being. The reaction has been mixed. Overall there has been a huge outpouring of support for Biles, especially from stars like Michael Phelps, the American swimming legend, who has been candid about his own mental health struggles. But there has been a section of the media, such as British thundertwat Piers Morgan, a man who makes me ashamed to share a nationality with him, who have been critical and even cruel towards her, calling her amongst other things, a quitter and weak.
For the people who claim that it’s a sad indictment of today’s culture that athletes quit because of mental pressure, I would argue that rather, it is a sad indictment of today’s culture that it is still considered unacceptable to succumb to mental stress and pressure. Simone Biles didnt have to admit to withdrawing for her mental well-being. It would have been entirely too easy to blame an injury or physical impediment. And, in another damning verdict on the attitude to mental illness, this would be an acceptable reason to withdraw.

Simone Biles chose to be open about her reasons for withdrawing. She shone a light on the topic of mental health, and then had the guts to return to the hall, knowing all eyes would be on her and the stories were already being broadcasted. She returned, and gave her team the benefit of her support and experience. She was still leading her team. Simone Biles made a brave move, admitting she could not go any further without making herself ill, or worse end up seriously injured. For those of us who struggle with our mental health, it is hard enough to admit we are in a bad place. For somebody with Biles’ public platform, to candidly admit to the pressure and stress affecting her mind and her performance, is a massive sign that the perhaps the world is moving on, and may be finally beginning to normalise conversations about mental health. For that reason, Simone Biles showing that kind of bravery, has made her my Olympian of the games so far, for doing something far more significant than landing a gymnastics routine. I only hope the backlash does not affect her, and she is supported to know that it’s ok to struggle. For good or bad, this will end up being the most memorable event of her career. I only hope it’s for the former, and she is remembered as the hero the current crop of Olympic athletes deserve for her bravery on the gymnastics stage and off.

Stay strong Simone. From an admiring Brit

~TBB

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