THE spectre that is mental health has once again cast its shadow on sport.

More and more athletes are succumbing to the intolerable effects of mental illness and choosing a path of self-preservation rather than self-aggrandisement at the expense of their sanity.

The result is a polarising perspective depending on a range of complex factors: a form of bio-psycho-socio-cultural algorithm.

US gymnast, Simone Biles, 24, recently withdrew from the women’s all-around gymnastics final at the Tokyo Olympics after a further medical evaluation determined that she was not yet ready to compete. This will be regularly reviewed.

The news followed her dramatic decision to stop competing in the women’s team event after only one rotation on the vault due to mental health issues.

Biles has been largely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time. She was heavily favoured to win a swag of gold medals at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Biles informed the media that she removed herself from the competition following a poor vault to protect herself from getting seriously hurt, as well as to ensure that she would not cost Team USA a medal “because of my screw up.” She also emphasized that while she was not physically injured, she needed to work on her “mindfulness” and give herself a break.

“It’s been really stressful, this Olympic Games,” she said. “It’s been a long week. It’s been a long Olympics 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 here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case.” Biles, a six-time Olympic medalist, answered questions from her fans about a condition that gymnasts call the “twisties” — a frightening state of disassociation that prevents athletes from successfully completing a skill, which can lead to serious injury.

“I can’t even fathom twisting. I seriously cannot comprehend how to twist,” Biles wrote on Instagram, attempting to explain how the twisties feel. “Strangest and weirdest thing as well as feeling.”

Biles said that, while training before her event, she had not been landing the moves she was meant to perform in competition. She said that she had been affected in every apparatus, “which sucks…really bad.”

Biles added that she has experienced the twisties before and “they’re not fun to deal with.” She said they started happening after the earlier preliminary round.

“Literally can not tell up from down. It’s the craziest feeling ever. Not having an inch of control over your body,” she continued. “What’s even scarier is since I have no idea where I am in the air I also have NO idea how I am going to land. Or what I am going to land on. Head/hands/feet back…”

Biles defended her decision to remove herself from competition for her own safety.

“I didn’t have a bad performance and quit. I’ve had plenty of bad performances throughout my career and finished competition,” she said. “I simply got so lost my safety was at risk as well as a team medal.”

It has now been three years since Biles revealed that she was one of the more than 100 female gymnasts abused by convicted former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.

Biles revealed “It is impossibly difficult to relive these experiences, and it breaks my heart even more to think that as I work toward my dream of competing in Tokyo 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused.”

Biles is also the only one of Nassar’s survivors who is still a competing member of the national team. She believes her continued presence is necessary in order to keep USA Gymnastics accountable. “If there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport they would’ve just brushed it to the side,” she said.

More than one-third of women and one-quarter of men in the U.S. will experience sexual violence during their lifetimes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the physical, emotional and financial toll can be devastating. The CDC estimates that the cost of rape runs around $122,461 per victim, including medical costs, lost productivity, criminal justice activities and other expenses, and the crime carries a total economic burden of almost $3.1 trillion in the U.S. This includes $1.2 trillion in medical costs, $1.6 trillion in lost productivity at work for victims and perpetrators, and $234 billion in criminal justice costs.

Sexual abuse victims suffer a range of mental health problems in their lives. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Panic Attacks, Agoraphobia, Major Depression and Drug and Alcohol Addictions. Sexual abuse has long been regarded as a significant factor in the development of Borderline Personality Disorder.

Biles’ decision has once again placed the spotlight on mental health and the pressures of elite sport, similar to tennis player Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open and then Wimbledon earlier this year.

Biles has become an outspoken advocate for athletes’ rights and the importance of proper mental health. There was a time — there were many times, actually — when she felt she wasn’t right and just powered through because that’s what people expected of her.

The reaction to Biles’ decision has been swift in both support and condemnation, from athletes to fans to sporting commentators, politicians and lay pundits.

Many of those who have been critical of her decision are cynical about the use of mental health as a default for a failure to deal with the pressure of competition. A failure to deal with expectations, both internal and external, to find a way against adversity and confront doubt and anxiety in the face of devastation and humiliation that accompanies loss.

Personality traits that are universally admired by those who generally lack them. The psychoanalytical defense of projective identification, whereby our failures are projected onto others who we demand to succeed to atone for our own failures. A form of vicarious achievement.

While others can admit to the overwhelming effects of depression and anxiety, elite sports people are not afforded the same luxury, it seems.

The critics include Piers Morgan, an English sports commentator who was previously critical of Naomi Osaka’s similar withdrawal. Of Simone Biles, he said: “Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport?” Morgan asked on Twitter, never having actually competed in any elite sports himself. “What a joke. Just admit you did badly, made mistakes, and will strive to do better next time. Kids need strong role models not this nonsense.

“Athletes are now deemed more courageous, inspiring, and heroic if they lose or quit than if they win or tough it out, which is ridiculous,” he added.

“When you call yourself the GOAT in sport, you can’t then quit the moment things get tough or you make a mistake,” he ended the article. “Get back out there Simone, and don’t get sucked into all the weak woke failure-loving Twitter nonsense — you’re too great a champion to be labelled a quitter.”

American media personality Ben Shapiro was another to question Biles’ decision and the torrent of support.

“Simone Biles isn’t a cowardly villain for pulling out of the Olympics. She isn’t a brave heroine for pulling out of the Olympics. We live in such an insanely polarized society that we can’t just let people be people,” he opined.

“I don’t think it makes her a villain to walk away and say that she is not competing. I also object to the idea that she is a great hero,” Shapiro said on his podcast. “And this is the part that’s kind of amazing, is that the media have now declared that when you walk away from things you’re supposed to compete in this makes you a hero. They did the same thing with Naomi Osaka.

“We would never apply this standard to any male athlete of any kind,” Shapiro argued. “If Tom Brady threw two interceptions in the first half of the Super Bowl and said…I need my backup to take over, we’d all be like ‘wow that’s a choke.’”

“Heroism is when you overcome the obstacle, not when the obstacle overcomes you,” Shapiro said. “The people that I do think are doing something that is horrible for the culture are people who are suggesting that it’s an act of heroism and valor to somehow walk away from the Olympics as the greatest gymnast of all time. That is a weird thing culturally to proclaim.”

Radio host Clay Travis also said that Biles has been held to a different standard and said she should apologize to her fellow gymnasts for quitting. “She wasn’t there for them, and that represents a fundamental breach of the most important aspect of team sports.” Conservative pundit Charlie Kirk went even further on his podcast, calling Biles “selfish”, “immature”, “a shame to the country” and a “sociopath”. He added: “Simone Biles just showed the rest of the nation that when things get tough, you shatter into a million pieces.” Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps, who has been candid about his own struggles with depression, said Wednesday he knows how Biles feels.

“We carry a lot of things, a lot of weight on our shoulders,” he said in an interview with NBC sportscaster Mike Tirico. “And it’s challenging, especially when we have the lights on us and all of these expectations that are being thrown on top of us.”

Speaking to NBC, Phelps also recalled his own battles with mental health, saying that he had found it hard to ask for support when he needed it.

“I can say personally, it was something that was very challenging. It was hard for me to ask for help. But it’s so important, especially to teach kids at a young age to take control of their physical and mental health. We’re human beings. Nobody is perfect.”

Meanwhile, speaking after winning her sixth Olympic gold medal in the women’s 1500m, the swimmer Katie Ledecky spoke of the pressure Biles had been under.

“Everyone around the world is watching, certainly Simone has so many eyes on her,” she said. “The cameras follow you around, I experience that on days like today. You can feel like a lot of people are watching you and every move you make is being watched and judged.”

“I’ve got to know Simone over the years and we’re in touch every now and then,” she added. “I hope she knows that I really support her and hope she does really well the rest of this week.”

The American sprinter and long jumper Tianna Bartoletta, who won three golds across the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics, said that Biles’ actions would resonate far beyond sport.

“There are people who witnessed Simone walk away from this who are stuck knee deep in some shit right now,” she wrote. “They watched the greatest gymnast of all time walk off the biggest stage and I guarantee you that for the first time that same someone somewhere is thinking …

“If she can walk away from that – with all that on the line for her, with the entire country and maybe even the world coming in hot with their hot takes – maybe, just maybe I can take this step to walk too. There’s a lot of power in maybe. And hope is one helluva drug.”

“What we can all say, regardless of what happened, we have huge respect and support for her,” the IOC spokesman Mark Adams said.

Adams added that the IOC had provided psychologists in the Athlete Village as well as a helpline for athletes in 70 languages. “Mental health is an incredibly important issue. Are we doing enough? I hope so, I think so. But like everyone else in the world we can do more on this issue.”

U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland applauded Biles for prioritizing her “mental wellness over all else” and offered the organization’s full support. USA Gymnastics women’s program vice president Annie Heffernon called Biles’ act “incredibly selfless.”

Even celebrity Justin Bieber responded.

“Nobody will ever understand the pressures you face! I know we don’t know each other but I’m so proud of the decision to withdraw. It’s as simple as- what does it mean to gain the whole world but forfeit your soul. Sometimes our no’s are more powerful than our yes’s. When what you normally love starts to steal your joy it’s important we take a step back to evaluate why. People thought I was crazy for not finishing the purpose tour but it was the best thing I could have done for my mental health!!”

The effect on Biles’ sponsors was also eagerly awaited as part of the unfolding drama.

Sponsors, including Athleta and Visa, are lauding her decision to put her mental health first and withdraw from the gymnastics team competition during the Olympics.

Athleta put out a statement in support of Biles after her withdrawal in Tokyo.

“We stand by Simone and support her well-being both in and out of competition,” Athleta said. “Being the best also means knowing how to take care of yourself. We are inspired by her leadership today and are behind her every step of the way.”

It appears sponsors are now quick to support athletes and the previously toxic issue of mental health. The pendulum has clearly swung in the opposite direction, in accordance with the seismic shift in societal attitudes towards discrimination and exploitation.

Several public figures and politicians threw their support behind US gymnastics champion Simone Biles after she decided to pull out from a team Olympics event on Tuesday. Former First Lady Michelle Obama tagged Biles in a tweet on Tuesday evening and wrote: “Am I good enough? Yes, I am. The mantra I practice daily.”

“We are proud of you and we are rooting for you,” she added.

GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah similarly commended the superstar gymnast, writing in a tweet: “I love and admire Simone Biles and our Olympians.”

“Beyond their determination and sacrifice, they evidence the greatness of the human spirit, in victory and in defeat,” he continued. “I take pride in them, not so much for the medals they win as for the grace, humanity & character of their hearts.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was also effusive in her support.

“God bless our athletes. We admire them for their skill, and their discipline, and their focus, and their talent,” the top Democrat said. “And we admire them as athletes, but we admire them as people for having the strength to walk away from all that.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York replied to the post, calling Biles a “champion and role model to us all.”

Media outlets were also adopted a conciliatory tone. USA Today called Biles’ decision “important” and a “powerful message”. The New York Times lauded the 24-year-old for putting her “mental health first and the expectations of others, at best, second”. And after Biles spoke about the mental exhaustion endemic to being the best, the Washington Post asked, “What are we doing, breaking our athletes?”

There is a difference between what is considered normal human emotions and mental illness. The difference lies quantitatively and qualitatively. How long the experience lasts, its severity and its specific features that distinguishes it from the range of normal human experience.

The assessment of these parameters has shifted almost exclusively to the domain and the opinion of the individual, albeit an athlete or a lay person.

Having access to the Internet has led to self-diagnosis for a range of conditions. And given rise to Illness Anxiety and Hypochondriasis.

Those in authority are no longer entrusted to make the best assessment and management of an individual’s mental health. This is a reflection of the shift in social norms and abuses away from institutions and authoritarian regimes towards the common person.

This has forced a recalibration of mental illness and how this manifests itself in overcoming adversity. The ‘challenges’ individuals face every day, succeeding and failing.

This is not bestowed upon athletes who are expected to ‘rise above’ and overcome such challenges. That is why they are at the Olympic Games.

Mental illness has long been stigmatised and relegated to the shadows of medicine. Often the object of denigration, ignorance and fear. Showing emotion and admitting defeat was regarded as a weakness.

A flaw in one’s character.

Conversely, overcoming adversity was regarded as a strength to be admired, envied, lauded and aspired to.

That is no longer the case. Now, admitting to mental health problems as a reason to fail is seen as brave and applauded. Not to do so, is self-harming and negligent.

The individual is taking control over how, why and what they feel. Not others.

External validation, it seems, is no longer necessary.

Adjectives such as resilient, brave and heroic will disappear from the narrative of personal struggle.

As a general principle, the debate around mental health is important. Sport is a microcosm of forces which focusses on the complexity and relationships between these forces.

There must be some compromise between an individual’s adverse emotional, cognitive and behavioural experience and how these are regarded by society and a need for role models.

There is nothing to be gained psychologically from continuing to engage in a relationship which is personally harmful to oneself. Hoping that one day, the result will be different.

It is rarely the case, which makes it more admired when it occurs. Overcome adversity; the greater the better.

For the majority, however, it often leads to anxiety, depression, loss of self-esteem and self-worth.

Perhaps the newer role models are now able to admit vulnerability and with it, defeat, without repercussions.

Internal, not external validation.

If it is acceptable to Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, then it should be acceptable to the rest of us.

 

Image via usa.com

« Back to Articles