Silence prevailed in the arena after Simone Biles’s uncharacteristically substandard vault attempt at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday. The announcer at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre introduced the next athlete and talked about the four other events that were going on, but everyone's eyes trailed Biles's every move. She stepped off the mat and left the floor with a coach.
Reporters scrambled for updates. One suggested she had sprained her ankle, while another said he heard it was a mental issue. And a video doing the rounds on social media showed Biles mouthing the words “I can’t get up there.”
The USA Gymnastics then put out a statement on Twitter that said Biles had withdrawn from the competition due to a “medical issue” and her run in the mixed final was over. But Biles remained by her teammates and played the role of a coach and even broke into a little dance with Jordan Chiles on an instrumental version of Ed Sheeran’s runaway hit
Shape of You. The injury evidentially was not physical.
READ: Simone Biles withdraws from gymnastics individual all-around final to focus on mental health
The USA returned with a silver medal and Biles, a strong advocate of prioritising mental health, revealed that she was “struggling with some issues.” She subsequently pulled out of the women's all-around event on Wednesday despite what was at stake - an opportunity to win six gold medals in Tokyo and become the most successful woman Olympian since Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina’s nine gold medals between 1956 and 1964.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka had made a similar statement three months ago when she refused to go through with media requirements at the French Open citing mental health reasons. The organisers threatened to fine and expel her, following which she withdrew from the tournament and stayed away from Wimbledon too.
Biles's withdrawal thrust the spotlight on the importance of mental well-being. No one could have imagined this would happen at the Olympics. Biles, the ultimate show-stopper, had stopped the show alright, but not on expected lines.
“I want to focus on my well-being. There is more to life than just gymnastics. It’s very unfortunate that it has to happen at this stage, I wanted the Olympics to go better. It’s the Olympic Games, it’s so big, but at the end of the day we wanna walk out of here not be dragged out of here on a stretcher,” she said on Tuesday.
“We’re not just athletes but humans... We have to focus on that, even if it means taking a back seat from whatever sports we’re doing.”
Biles tipped her hat to Osaka. “She's been a huge inspiration. The other day I watched her whole documentary series on
Netflix and it really shined a light on it. It's like, 'Wow she's one of the greatest athletes of the world and she took a break.' Sometimes it is okay to take a back seat, even at the most important meets,” she said.
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Biles's withdrawal was hard on her teammates. “I came back in tears! We were so stressed and did not know what to do at that moment. She’s Simone Biles, she carries the team! When we had to step up to the plate, it was very hard and stressful but I am very proud because we did,” said Suni Lee, who was pivotal in the USA’s silver medal.
The importance of mental well-being and the emphasis on it has seen a sharp upswing since the coronavirus pandemic began, and athletes are talking about it.
Biles said, “I think it (the withdrawal) shows power in the athlete, protecting my mental health and well-being, that I did not want to go out there and do something dumb and get hurt and be negligent.”
She added, while sobbing, that she wanted to do what felt right to her. “I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to. I don’t know if it's age, I'm a little more nervous when I do gymnastics. I feel like I am also not having as much fun. I know that at this Olympic Games I wanted to be for myself. I came in and it felt like I was still doing it for other people. (cries) So that hurts my heart that doing what I love has been taken away from me to please other people. At the end of the day, I have to do what's right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardise my health and well-being.”
Biles will have another four events left at the Games starting from the women's vault event on August 1 - and four gold medal opportunities as a result. Should she feel better, the world will be waiting with open arms to see the champion back in action again.