Simone Biles is often called the greatest gymnast in history. So her withdrawal from the gymnastics team final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics caused a ripple of shock across the world. Biles’ withdrawal from the event, which the United States has been dominating for over a decade, highlights the toll these extreme sports events take on athletes, many of whom are very young. 

Simone Withdraws From Team Finals

Simone Biles

Biles’ abrupt withdrawal from the team finals has people concerned. The athlete is at the peak of her career, making history every year, so her inability to compete in an event her team consistently wins is alarming. The withdrawal came after Biles attempted a less-than-stellar performance on the vault. Biles spoke to her trainer, then changed into warm-up gear. At the time, it was announced that her withdrawal from the event was due to “a medical issue.” Now, however, it has been elaborated upon; the medical issue Biles is dealing with is mental health related. 

Boston Globe reports Biles’ comments in the wake of her withdrawal, “‘No injury, thankfully, and that’s why I took a step back. Because I didn’t want to do something silly out there and get injured so I thought it was best if these girls took over and did the rest of the job, which they absolutely did, they’re Olympic silver medalists now and they should be really proud of themselves for how well they did last minute, having to go in. …

‘It’s been very stressful, this Olympic Games, just as a whole — not having an audience, there are a a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week, it’s been a long Olympic process, it’s been a long year, so just a lot of different variables and I think we’re just a little bit too stressed out but we should be out there having fun and sometimes that’s not the case.

‘Today has been really stressful, we had a workout this morning and it went OK and then just that five-and-a-half hour wait or something, I was just shaking, could barely nap, I just never felt like this going into a competition before and tried to go out there and have fun … once I came out here I was like, ‘No, mental is not there so I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself.’”

When asked if she will be competing in Thursday’s all-around gymnastics event, Biles responded that they’d have to wait and see. At this point, the gymnast is “taking it day by day.” 

Other Athletes Who Have Withdrawn in 2021

While the Olympics is often a spectacle of great pride and jubilation, behind the scenes there’s a somewhat different reality. Biles’ withdrawal to care for her mental health highlights just how hard the Olympics is for its star athletes; many of whom are under the age of 20. Not only do the pressures of the international stage and expectations from home weigh heavily on the mental wellness of athletes, but the physical toll is extreme as well. Although athletes are at the prime of their physical condition, bodies aren’t designed to stand up to such rigorous training. A good trainer with a careful athlete can pull the best performances out time after time, but eventually it comes time to pay the piper for most athletes. For many, the toll is felt long after their Olympic career – in aching joints and lingering injuries. For some, they pay the toll during their career and struggle to overcome devastating injuries. 

In the past, athletes would be expected to perform through injuries to the best of their abilities. Tiger Woods, for instance, played through 91 holes and won the 2008 US Open with a broken leg and torn ACL. Now, with more awareness on how the body heals, athletes are expected to withdraw and care for their physical wellness first, and return to compete if and when they can do so without permanently harming themselves. It’s precisely because of athletes like Woods who pushed the limits of human endurance and had an unnecessarily long road to recovery that athletes are more proactive now about withdrawing before things reach a crisis point; both for mental health, and physical. Playing through pain is often called courageous, patriotic, or admirable; but it can be career-ending. 

That’s why this year’s Olympics has seen some athletes withdraw who perhaps would not have in past years; they hope to preserve their career rather than risk it all for a single competition. These athletes have withdrawn from this year’s games, among others:

  • Peter Sagan: Slovakia’s Sagan withdrew from the Olympics road race. The cyclist has long been a favorite, but withdrew to heal from an infection in his knee due to an injury sustained to the Tour de France. 
  • Jack Haig: The Australian cyclist withdrew from the same race. Ironically, the injury he’s recovering from – a broken collarbone- was sustained during the same leg of the Tour de France as Sagan’s injury. 
  • Shane Ryan: Irish swimmer Ryan withdrew from the 100-metre backstroke due to a shoulder injury. 
  • Boipelo Awuah: At 15 years old Awuah is South Africa’s youngest representative at the Olympics. Heartbreaking, while practicing for the women’s street skateboarding event, she shattered her pelvis and had to withdraw. 

Unfortunately, the list goes on and on for an Olympics beset by drama and controversy. It all started out with a bang as US runner Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from competing due to a positive drug test. From there, everything went downhill. People were worried about the impact of large crowds on Tokyo, which has been seeing an increase in COVID cases over the past month. Despite limiting viewers to locals only, restricting capacity, and keeping athletes in their own bubbles when not performing, COVID cases have already popped up in the Olympic village. The laundry list of injuries knocking athletes out of commission – both mental and physical – just adds to the heavy feel of a world event that is usually such a source of joy and celebration. 

Naomi Osaka Withdrew From French Open for Mental Health

Naomi Osaka

While it’s not common for an athlete to withdraw from the Olympics citing mental health concerns, it’s becoming more and more common in the world as a whole now that the impact of poor mental health is rising to the forefront of dialogue. 10 years ago, an employee taking a mental health leave from work was essentially unheard of, and mocked ruthlessly. Now, people are starting to demand the space to care for their mental health the same they would a physical injury.

Case in point: Naomi Osaka. Osaka withdrew from the French Open earlier this year after receiving backlash (and a $15,000 fine) for refusing to speak to media after winning a grand slam. Osaka cited mental health concerns as to why she wanted to avoid the media swarm after the competition. And then, when she was mocked and fined for choosing not to speak to the media, she withdrew from the competition entirely. 

At the time, Osaka said in part by way of explanation, “‘I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can. So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.

‘I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that. I wrote privately to the tournament apologizing and saying that I would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the Slams are intense.

‘I’m gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.'”

And that has indeed sparked some dialogue across the world about the mental health needs of athletes. Because athletes are often paid extraordinary amounts of money, the public tends to see them as owing a certain amount of access. Osaka’s decision to buck that trend raises questions about how much athletes actually owe the public – a conversation which spills over into the celebrity realm. 

With athletes paying more attention than ever to their mental and physical wellbeing, the Tokyo Olympics is an awkward junction between the past and future. However, if athletes taking a short break means they have a longer and healthier career, that’s something all fans should get behind. Hopefully Biles will be able to return to competition Thursday, but it would be better to lose her for one Olympics than the rest of her career. Biles is not finished changing the world.