TOKYO — The warning of a typhoon that was supposed to slam into Tokyo 2020 turned out to be a bust.
But the Games were still hit by a meteor.
Simone Biles, the American gymnast who won four gold medals in Rio de Janiero, revolutionized the sport, and was widely considered the greatest of all time, withdrew from Thursday night’s all-around final, a day after she pulled out of the team competition in order to focus on her mental health.
The withdrawal, in a stroke, leaves the Tokyo Olympics without one of their biggest stars and leaves NBC, the U.S. broadcaster that gives the International Olympic Committee the bulk of its revenue, without one of the absolute pillars of its programming.
It also is a watershed moment in modern sport, when an athlete at the absolute pinnacle of her discipline acknowledges publicly that there are unseen challenges preventing her from taking the competitive field. Gymnastics has for decades been among the most ruthless of sports, with a culture demanding gruelling sacrifice as the price of success, but with her decision Biles has said that vulnerability is OK. When she said on Tuesday night that she was “fighting all those demons” and that she didn’t “trust myself as much as I used to,” it was a repudiation of the idea that an athlete can only demonstrate greatness by burying the worries and fears that might trip them up.
If part of American gymnastics lore was Kerri Strug performing on the vault despite an injured ankle at Atlanta 1996, creating the legend of someone who literally had to be carried to the podium because she had put winning ahead of her own safety, here was Biles now going in the opposite direction: Maybe putting yourself at risk just to win shouldn’t be the expectation.
There’s no point in imagining how the Biles decision is playing in the wider culture beyond sports, because we can already see it happening
USA Gymnastics has publicly supported that position, saying on Wednesday in announcing Biles’ withdrawal from the all-around competition that it “wholeheartedly supports Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being.”
It would have been a surprise, though, if USA Gymnastics offered anything else. The organization’s reputation has been ruined by the sexual abuse scandal involving a former team doctor, of which Biles was a victim, and it has been excoriated for fostering a win-at-all-costs ethos.
The larger question is how Biles’ decision to step away from competing right at the moment of the most important competition on the gymnastics calendar will be accepted in the sporting world. Gymnastics is far from alone in creating a suck-it-up culture that values obedience to the team above all else, nor is it the only sport in which the expectation is that if you are physically able to get out on the field, you will get out on the field. And if you can’t physically do it, they will patch you up or inject enough painkillers that you can. What would happen if a young NHL star announced, on the eve of the Stanley Cup Final, that he was feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to please everyone else, and that the joy of the game had been lost? What if a quarterback said he needed to take a break from fighting his demons during Super Bowl week? While there has been significant change around the conversation about sports and mental health in recent years, the industry — from teams to leagues to media to fans — would have a hard time coming to terms with a Biles-level withdrawal in a major team sport. Athletes routinely are criticized any time they do anything that is perceived to be in their own best interest, instead of the team’s.
There’s no point in imagining how the Biles decision is playing in the wider culture beyond sports, because we can already see it happening. A certain strain of commentator wants to lump it in with all the other complaints about how Things Were Better in the Olden Days, when athletes didn’t speak their mind about social issues, and were happy to play for whatever salary that ownership was willing to pay, and they certainly didn’t open up about mental-health challenges. You kept those things to yourself, and you suffered alone.
Those attitudes are fading. Whether it was DeMar DeRozan in the NBA, Robin Lehner in the NHL or any number of other athletes who have spoken out about mental health — a good number of whom are on Team Canada in Tokyo — there is growing acceptance that the price of playing a sport for a living should not include one’s own well-being.
But no one has ever made that argument as bravely as Simone Biles, putting her health — and, in her sport, her safety — ahead of the chance to cement her sporting legacy. The next time some athlete somewhere is privately struggling, and wondering if it’s OK to take a step back, there will be this example out there to follow.
If the greatest gymnast of all time can lose confidence and feel overwhelmed by it all, than anyone can.
Every Olympics creates certain legacies. Biles created one in Rio. She has done it again, here.