What Simone Biles Understands About Greatness

In walking away from an Olympic event, the world’s best gymnast rejected the false dichotomy between personal well-being and professional excellence.

Simone Biles at a competition.
Cheng Min / Xinhua / Eyevine / Red​ux

Central to Simone Biles’s appeal as an athlete, even to viewers only flimsily acquainted with the rules and rituals of her sport, is the clarity of her gift. You do not have to know the specs of the original “Biles,” a double layout with a half twist and blind landing that distinguishes her floor routine, to wonder over her straightened limbs blurring and her equilibrium compensating. By the same token, on those rare occasions when the 24-year-old four-time Olympic gold medalist falters, it is thuddingly obvious. Yesterday evening in Tokyo, attempting a two-and-a-half twist vault in the Olympic women’s team gymnastics final, Biles completed only a twist and a half and stumbled upon landing. “I’m sorry,” she told her teammates minutes later, notifying them that she was withdrawing from the competition. “I love you guys, but you’re gonna be just fine.”

Shortly after, Biles appeared at a press conference and did something remarkable. One of the world’s top athletes revised the language of greatness, positioning it as something to be tended to and mindfully maintained, not drawn on ad nauseam. Her most telling words rejected the false dichotomy between personal well-being and professional excellence, instead pointing to the former as a precondition of the latter. Biles has spoken in the run-up to the Olympics about the pressures of fame, the isolation of these particular Games, and her experiences in therapy. Yesterday, Biles said she felt “lost in the air.” “I tried to go out here and have fun … but once I came out here I was like, ‘No, mental’s not there.’”

The response to Biles’s candor has been mostly laudatory, an indicator of the waning hold of sports’ win-at-all-costs ethos. (Today, Biles withdrew from the individual all-around competition; she may yet participate in other individual events.) There’s a tinge of irony, but not of contradiction, to 2021’s prominent mental-health moments in sports. In May, the tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open after first refusing to take part in the tournament’s mandatory press conferences, citing the “huge waves of anxiety” she experiences at them. But yesterday, much of Biles’s Olympics presser felt like business as usual. Biles talked in her familiar post-competition tone, frank in self-assessment and effusive toward her peers, with a smattering of Olympian-grade cliché. “That’s why we have teammates,” she said, “because if somebody’s feeling down, they have to step up, and they did just that.”

When reporters trained their questions on Biles’s emotional state, she spoke just as comfortably, talking about mental health in the same terms as fitness and recovery programs—another variable in the champion’s pursuit. She described the danger of pressing through and competing in her state, saying she didn’t want to “do something silly” and hurt herself. She called Osaka—another sport-defining Black woman—a source of inspiration. “I say put mental health first,” Biles said in response to a query about how she’d advise other athletes in similar circumstances. “Because if you don’t, you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to.”

In the 24-plus hours since Biles walked off, sports media have made much of the potential of her actions and words to reshape gymnastics. This is a discipline rooted in hard endeavor that can tip into mistreatment; its participants start young, train through injuries and over arduous hours, and chase a codified perfection. USA Gymnastics has seen these mores concentrate messily in Kerri Strug, who in 1996 vaulted onto an already-damaged ankle to push her team to gold, and nightmarishly in Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of Biles and other athletes. (Biles noted yesterday that she had the “correct people” around her at these Games, an allusion to the brutal and tight-lipped culture of the former regime.) Aly Raisman, a former Olympic teammate of Biles, is among those publicly hoping that Biles’s actions set a new precedent of self-prioritization among gymnasts. Biles has made room for others to do what was formerly unthinkable in the sport’s grinding culture: refuse too punishing a task.

Such an outcome would be legacy enough. But Biles’s words could reshape sports beyond her own. If the support for Osaka revealed an appetite for the end of sport as suffering, Biles has now proposed an alternative doctrine. “It’s okay sometimes to even sit out the big competitions, to focus on yourself,” she said. “It shows how strong of a competitor and person you really are, rather than just battle through it.” The predictable subset of the pundit class framing Biles’s decision as cowardly—proof that the modern athlete is coddled, or that the supply of American grit is running low—could not have chosen a less fitting mark. Biles has won the U.S. national championships jumping and landing on broken toes; she has won a world championship with a kidney stone. There may be nobody alive with a firmer grasp of what can and can’t be transcended.

For athletes, a willingness to sit one out, if they need to, may make for more humane conditions—more thoughtful protocols for post-match media interviews, more resources for competitors traveling around the world without friends or family. For all of us watching, there’s another subtle but meaningful effect. We draw no small portion of our ideas about striving and accomplishment from sports. Biles, in leaving her competition yesterday, did what we want great athletes to do: offer a hint about the connection between internal workings and external brilliance. It wasn’t joyful, so she couldn’t fly through the air in the way we’re used to seeing. That tells us something crucial, and beautiful, about the times when she could.