This article was updated at 1:43 p.m. ET on August 23, 2021.
Simone Biles was expected to be the story of the Tokyo Olympics because of her long series of jaw-dropping performances up to now. Instead, she’s become the story of these Olympics because she’s not performing. Citing her mental health, Biles removed herself from the women’s gymnastics team final after one rotation on Tuesday night. A day later, she withdrew from the individual all-around competition. At one point this week, she acknowledged losing track of her position while in midair—a dangerous outcome for a gymnast.
The 24-year-old’s decision to prioritize her well-being has been mostly praised. “We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being,” USA Gymnastics, the organization that oversees the sport, said in a statement. “Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.” Figures as varied as Justin Bieber and former first lady Michelle Obama have offered words of encouragement, telling the gymnast how inspirational she has been.
The response prompted Biles to tweet: “The outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.” This was a startling statement from an athlete who is widely regarded as the best her sport has ever produced.
The courage of Biles’s decision may be more evident in light of the sharp criticism she has received from some quarters. On his Fox Sports radio show, Ben Maller said that Biles was the “biggest quitter in sports,” and that she was being selfish because “there’s some faceless gymnast who missed getting on Team USA by one spot who would not have walked away and who would have loved the opportunity to be in Tokyo and to compete.”
Some people—conservative men in particular—simply cannot bear to see a woman of color making her own choices about what’s best for her. Texas Deputy Attorney General Aaron Reitz called Biles a “national embarrassment” in a tweet in response to a conservative publisher who had posted a video of a famous performance at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in which the gymnast Kerri Strug landed on one foot after performing on the vault with a broken ankle. (Reitz later apologized to Biles, a fellow Texan, on Twitter.)
Efforts to paint Biles as a mentally fragile quitter play into conservatives’ frequent insinuations that Black Americans are not as patriotic as they are—despite the long history of Black people representing, performing for, and fighting for this country without the benefit of full equality.
As an athletic matter, Biles had absolutely nothing to prove. She showed up in Tokyo having won every all-around competition she’s entered since 2013, and at the Olympics she was seeking to become the first woman to win back-to-back gold medals in the all-around competition in more than 50 years. Having won five medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics—four gold medals and one bronze—Biles’s only competition in Tokyo was herself.
Then again, Biles was also competing as a reminder of how USA Gymnastics failed girls and women in the sport. Biles was one of more than 150 women and girls who were sexually abused by Larry Nassar, who in 2018 was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for carrying out that abuse while working as a doctor for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics.
In an episode of her Facebook Watch documentary series, Simone vs. Herself, Biles talks candidly about how Nassar’s abuse impacted her. “I was, like, super depressed. I didn’t want to leave my room, and I didn’t want to go anywhere. I kind of just shut everybody out. I don’t know, it was probably hard for me,” she said.
Biles admitted a few months ago that a big reason she chose to return for this Olympics was to hold the governing authorities in her sport accountable for enabling Nassar and failing to protect girls and women. “I just feel like everything that happened, I had to come back to the sport to be a voice, to have change happen,” Biles told NBC’s Today show in April. “Because I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side.”
Walking away from competition now wasn’t an indication that Biles was weak. It was an indication that she was strong enough to admit that she couldn’t push through the problems she was facing. The former Olympian Michael Phelps, who has been extremely candid about struggling with depression and anxiety, said Biles’s situation “broke my heart,” but he hoped that her withdrawal would make athletes feel more comfortable sharing their mental-health struggles.
“I hope this is an eye-opening experience, I really do,” said Phelps, who is serving as a commentator for NBC’s Olympic coverage. “I hope this is an opportunity for us to jump on board and to even blow this mental-health thing even more wide open. It is so much bigger than we could even ever imagine. This is something that’s gonna take a lot of time, a lot of hard work, and people who are willing to help.”
Biles’s decision in Tokyo was reminiscent of the tennis star Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open and Wimbledon after admitting that she’d been dealing with depression since winning the U.S. Open in 2018. For some reason, people seem bothered by the fact that athletes of this generation prioritize their own physical and mental health and don’t necessarily want to be regarded as invincible.
Even though Biles was betrayed by her sport, she redefined it—and she doesn’t owe anyone anything. Certainly not her peace of mind.
This article previously misstated the date of Naomi Osaka's first U.S. Open victory, which occurred in 2018.