Content Warning: mentions of anti-Black racism
Simone Biles shocked the world when she withdrew from the US women’s gymnastics team gold medal final event at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Her exit for mental health reasons, while controversial, has brought the conversation on mental health to the forefront.
Biles is the most decorated US women’s gymnast in the world with 32 World/Olympic medals. She is a five-time all-around world champion and has developed original skills in a competition where judging panels are struggling to score properly. Needless to say that when “it-girl” Simone Biles felt uneasy twisting through the air during warm-up, people were concerned. Even more concerning was when the world champ withdrew from an Olympic final competition altogether. Biles was said to have been experiencing a medical issue, however, it was later that she withdrew to protect her mental health.
Athletics & Mental Wellbeing
Elite athletes face enormous pressure to perform at the highest level no matter what. This results in a culture of “fighting through it” no matter what “it” may be. From injuries to mental health crises, the expectation is that athletes must deliver no matter the cost.
Biles is not the first to take a step back for mental health reasons, nor will she be the last. Yet, the subject of mental health in elite athletics remains taboo despite roughly 35% of elite athletes having suffered some form of mental health crisis. According to Athletes for Hope, these crises can manifest in athletes as “stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety.”
Dr. Naresh Rao, a member of the US Olympic medical team at the Tokyo Olympics, notes that if you compound the relatively young ages of Olympic athletes and the added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, the percentage of mental health problems increases exponentially (as high as 70%). This number is additionally altered when we consider the higher rates of depression and anxiety in female athletes (roughly three times higher than men).
While athletes in different contexts face different challenges, the fact remains that “mental health crises [in athletes] are not rare.” So the question then becomes, why are mental health crises so common among elite athletes and how are athletes meant to seek help if the subject is still taboo?
Mental Health Mechanisms In Place
Currently, there are two primary mechanisms that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has in place to protect and provide athletes with mental health resources: the Safe Sport Action Plan (SSAP) and the Mental Health Elite Athletes Toolkit (MHEA Toolkit). Both initiatives were implemented within the last year and are perhaps the most tangible mechanisms compared to previous initiatives put forth by the IOC. SSAP, for instance, is one of the first action plans to focus on factors such as race and gender and how these can contribute to making certain athletes more vulnerable to different kinds of harassment.
The SSAP intends to ensure a safe environment for elite athletes by implementing certified Safeguarding Officers who will ensure that the IOC anti-harassment policies are being upheld. Stakeholders like International Federations (IFs) and National Olympic Committees (NOCs) are expected to send at least one representative to become a certified safeguarding officer. Courses for the safeguarding officer in sports certificates were set to begin in September 2021. SSAP will function as a prevention measure for mental health crises, too.
The MHEA Toolkit, on the other hand, offers a step-by-step guide for stakeholders, coaches, facilitators, and fellow athletes to recognize and address signs of declining mental health. The Toolkit makes the Tokyo Olympics the first games to have such mental health guidelines in place. However, neither the SSAP nor the MHEA Toolkit provides athletes with an immediate response team outside of the Toolkit’s “entourage.” The entourage is the immediate group of individuals working closely with athletes (coaches, medical staff, other athletes).
However, NOCs like the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, already provide their teams with their own group of mental health professionals. In this context, the Toolkit might then be seen as less effective. On the other hand, other NOCs may only provide a basic medical team for their athletes, choosing to keep an eye on sleep and diet for indicators of mental health decline. In this case, the Toolkit could serve as an excellent mental health resource.
The Pressures of Being a Black Female “Superhuman”
A critical aspect to consider is the extreme pressure placed on Black, and especially Black female, athletes at the top of their sport. Players like Biles and Naomi Osaka face tremendous pressure to exceed expectations. They are role models, record breakers, foremost in their sport, and often redefine gender norms and break down racial barriers. Yet this also puts a major target on their back. So when these heroes fall, the backlash comes from all sides.
For the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Biles was not only expected to “defend” her spot at the top, but she was also “expected to become the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic honors in half a century.” Biles, the face of her sport, is frequently described as “superhuman” — a label that has followed her since childhood. Unfortunately, while she is certainly worthy of the praise, being “superhuman” can dehumanize Biles to fans, media, and even herself.
With the games underway, Biles began to experience high stress and anxiety levels before each event. She explained that the stress would mount to the point where she would physically shake. As Biles put it, “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”
When she initially withdrew from the team event, her teammates were worried about not performing well without her. While Biles is undoubtedly a world star, her teammates qualified for the Olympic gymnastic team on their own merit. Yet, they felt concerned they could not win without her. Conversely, Biles felt that by competing, she would cost her team a medal. Nevertheless, the team went on to win the silver medal, demonstrating that their success was not dependent on a single star player.
Racism in Sports
However, pressure does not simply come from being the best and trying to keep it that way. Black players also face the heightened wrath of fans when they cannot deliver a gold performance. This offensive behaviour was especially apparent after the 2021 Euro Cup finals. England’s Marcus Rashford (23), Jadon Sancho (21), and Bukayo Saka (19) all experienced racial abuse online after missing the penalty shots in the final against Italy. On a CBC Sports video series, Bring It In, Dave Zirin commented that this was not surprising, saying, “you are English when you win, you are Black when you lose.” However, it seems the players were also unsurprised. Online, Saka wrote that when he missed the penalty shot, he instantly knew the kind of hate he would receive.
Additionally, Black athletes experience racial bias when they are physically injured. They are often written off as lazy or exaggerating and are expected to show up and play regardless. The media used the lazy, selfish, attention-seeking narrative to describe Osaka and Biles recently (see the comment section of this article, for example).
Even more disturbing is how sports leagues have neglected financial responsibilities for cognitive damage done to Black players. For example, ABC News broke the story of how the NFL uses “race-norming” in their concussion settlement program. Under this policy, Black athletes received smaller payouts for brain injuries on the wholly inaccurate claim that Black players began their careers with lower cognitive function than white players. Therefore, Black athletes would be required to demonstrate a drastic cognitive decline to qualify for the same payout as white athletes with less severe cognitive damage.
Ultimately, the treatment of Black athletes by the media, fans, and athletic organizations is entirely unjust, outright racist, and dangerous. Black athletes are expected to maintain athletic perfection while being happy to accept little to no financial, physical, and emotional support.
Criticism of Biles
Biles’ case is especially interesting because she stepped away from the games before physically injuring herself — a preventative measure elite athletes rarely take. Biles displayed signs of the “twisties” in competitions leading up to her withdrawal. The “twisties” is a phenomenon where a gymnast may become disoriented during a skill, leading to serious injuries. In fact, Biles nearly missed her landing in the vault event just before her withdrawal from the team final.
Despite the maturity Biles displayed in stepping back before causing any physical damage, fans, fellow athletes, and the media labelled her as the world’s biggest quitter. Criticisms of Biles have ranged anywhere from Biles’ being lazy and selfish to her being mentally stable enough to “cash the checks.” Some of her critics even include fellow Olympic athletes.
For example, former wrestling Olympian Henry Cejudo felt Biles could benefit from some “tough love.” Following an online discussion over Twitter with Olympic gymnast Dominique Moceanu, Cejudo admitted that fans and the media play a role in building up pressure and uncertainty. However, Cejudo maintains that this was something to be remedied by extra focus and a stronger mindset. “Pressure could either break, or it could make diamonds,” says Cejudo.
Cejudo’s point, however, only reiterates the culture in elite athletic competitions that contributes to the perpetuation of mental health crises: “fight through it; tough it out.” The focus remains on how overcoming stress and anxiety (by focusing harder or ignoring the issue) will optimize physical performance to satisfy the immediate requirement. There is little consideration for how overcoming these obstacles might affect one’s quality of life, coping mechanisms, and how mental health manifests in the body.
It would seem that Biles’ true crime lies in rejecting the time-honoured tradition of sacrificing oneself for the glory of gold and our entertainment.
The Impacts of Training During COVID-19
The factors that contribute to the mental health of an Olympic athlete do not end there. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been unlike any other. The uncertainty leading up to the games placed additional stress on athletes. As COVID restrictions varied globally, training, qualifying, and simply maintaining fitness became a challenge for many athletes.
Additionally, the measures to safeguard athletes against COVID-19 in Tokyo contributed to isolating athletes from their critical support systems. While virtual messages of encouragement from friends and family is certainly better than nothing, the presence of family members and close friends at the games is a crucial part of mental health for athletes. “Families often play a central role in protecting the person’s sense of self, countering negative messages […] and building the person’s confidence.”
The ban on spectators may have also hindered the overall experience and performance of athletes at these games. According to Edson Filoh, an Associate Professor of sport psychology at the Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, Crowds play an important part in enhancing an athlete’s performance (see social facilitation). Filoh notes that performing for a crowd can increase motivation, energy, and concentration.
The Olympics became further complicated when Japan saw its case numbers steadily rising to a record high of over 5,000 cases. Over 500 of those cases reported by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were directly related to the games. Despite the safety measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID to Olympic personnel, 28 athletes tested positive for the virus. Concerns over personal safety are no doubt an added source of stress for the athletes.
In light of Biles’ withdrawal, mental health became the central theme of the 2020 games. Athletes in the Olympics and across the globe came out in support of Biles, opening up about their own struggles. This shift in elite athletics is crucial. As more athletes share their stories, safe spaces emerge to openly discuss their mental health, without stigma. When these conversations can take place, people feel empowered to set healthy boundaries and prioritize their mental wellbeing.
It will be interesting to see how the conversations surrounding mental health and athletics will shape major league sports organizations, like the Olympics, and the expectations placed on competitors to tough it out.
This change is just the beginning.