Simone Biles: the merit of mediatizing mental health

Simone Biles, the 24-year-old American and one of the world's most prominent athletes, pulled out of the women's team final at the Tokyo Olympics and announced she was also pulling out of the individual final. The world was in shock last July, but Simone Biles has done more for the world with this gesture than with all the medals that put her on the world sport's Olympus. 

Simone is an artistic gymnastics specialist, winning twenty-five medals at world championships, nineteen gold. She is the most decorated gymnast in her country's history at world championships among her many distinctions. 


What happened in Tokyo didn't stay in Tokyo

Simone dropped out of the women's team final after the first jump. Officially it was announced as a "medical problem", but the best in the world later assumed that she was not emotionally well enough to continue. Admitting to mental health problems is still something uncommon among professional athletes.

Biles spoke of anxiety, lack of confidence in herself, lack of fun, and the existence of "demons" inside her head - in addition to a feeling of body and mind not being in sync - which made it too dangerous for her to perform some of her usual exercises on beam, parallel bars, or floor. Nevertheless, she dared to value her mental health, making a difficult decision both for herself and for the outcome of her team and her country. 

The gymnast believes that athletes should protect their minds and bodies and not simply do what everyone expects. "I don't trust myself as much as I used to; maybe I'm getting older. There are some days when everyone messages you, and you feel the weight of the world," she confessed, adding that when she goes into the competition, "it's just me and my head dealing with demons. I didn't want to go into competition and do something stupid and hurt myself. I feel like other athletes talking about mental health helped me. It's the Olympics; it's a crucial thing. At the end of the day, we don't want to end up leaving on a stretcher," she said. 

Later, the young gymnast detailed her problem: she suffered from a disorientation condition that can cause athletes to lose body awareness while moving in the air, which can cause serious injuries when they return to the ground. Finally, she mentioned feeling that "her body and her mind were not in sync" and gave up competing in four out of five finals in her category to focus on her mental health.


Mental health and fighting stigmas

Simone Biles has had the merit of making this kind of issue known to the media and getting the world to discuss the enormous importance of mental health, to diminish the stigma still attached, and also to discuss the negative impact that perfectionism - individual and social - has on well-being in general, and psychological health in particular.

This past year, Simone Biles also joined the movement to denounce sexual abuse in sports (joining the well-known #MeeTo), blaming the USA Gymnastics Federation and "the whole system" for allowing Larry Nassar, the national team doctor for 20 years, to sexually abuse her and hundreds of other gymnasts. 


Other examples

There have been several world-renowned sportsmen and women who have publicly disclosed similar issues. We recall three of them.

Naomi Osaka
The Japanese tennis player withdrew from the Roland Garros Grand Slam, claiming concern for her mental health after refusing post-match press conferences. The athlete revealed that she has suffered periods of anxiety and depression since her US Open victory.

Michael Phelps
The former swimmer and most prominent medal winner at the Olympics, with 28 in total, revealed in 2018 that he struggled with depression and thoughts about suicide after the London Games in 2012. Last year, he brought up the subject again, stating that the pandemic has been one of the scariest moments of his life.

Rafaela Silva
Before becoming an Olympic champion, the Brazilian judoka had to overcome depression after her elimination at the 2012 London Games and the racist slurs she received on social media. Rafaela even stopped training.