This year’s Olympic Games was Simone Biles’s chance to make history. The 24-year-old American gymnast, lauded as the greatest of all time, was seeking to become the first woman to defend the all-around Olympic title since 1968.
But when Biles took to the vaulting table to perform the Amanar vault in the team final last week, commentators noticed something wasn’t right. Biles didn’t seem herself. She ran to the vault, catapulting herself into the air, aiming to perform two half twists. But when Biles landed on the mat she’d only managed one, and her landing was unusually heavy.
Biles scored her lowest Olympic vault score in the opening rotation before announcing she was withdrawing from the team final to protect her mental health. She spoke of “feeling the weight of the world”, of knowing she needed to take a step back.
Mental health charities described Biles’s decision to withdraw from the final as a seminal moment, not just in sport but in challenging the stigma and discourse about mental health.
Biles may not have made history at Tokyo 2020 for her sporting achievements, but the legacy of her decision to open up about her mental health on the world stage will have far-reaching consequences long after the tournament has drawn to a close. Biles has laid down a foundation for other athletes and people around the world to feel empowered to take a step back, to rest, to admit they are only human.
Previous research by the charity Mind has shown that when people in the public eye speak about their mental health, it encourages others to do the same. As many as one in five people have spoken to a loved one as a direct result of seeing a celebrity speak out.
In opening up about the impact of her mental health on her performance, Biles, a sexual abuse survivor, has demonstrated to the world that you can be the greatest but you can also carry scars. She has shown that sometimes it’s too much to pounce, to jump, to smile, to be light and springy when inside you feel heavy.
Earlier this summer we saw Naomi Osaka reveal her own struggles with anxiety and depression after withdrawing from the French Open in a row over attending a press conference.
Both Biles and Osaka represent a new generation of female athletes who are ready to set their own boundaries, and who aren’t afraid to say no. Among them is the German gymnastics team, who last week made headlines for choosing to compete in full body suits in Tokyo rather than leotards as part of a stand against the sexualisation of their sport.
Before that we saw the Norwegian handball team fined for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms at the European Beach Handball Championships.
As Biles cheers on her teammates from the sidelines in what is likely to be her final Olympics, it is likely that her story of challenging stigma, resetting boundaries and inspiring gymnasts all over the world is only just beginning.