July 2021 BBC; When Simone Biles – four-time Olympic gold medallist, multiple world champion and arguably the greatest gymnast of all time – withdrew from the team and all-around events at the Tokyo Olympics, it was headline news across the US and the world.
The American, who is a sexual assault survivor, spoke about the importance of preserving her mental health and the need to “protect our minds and our bodies,” adding: “We are people, at the end of the day.”
Biles’ decision drew praise from many, but there were others who accused her of using mental health as an excuse for a below-standard performance.
For many athletes, past and present, Biles’ honesty could change the way mental health is dealt with in sport.
“As the story unfolded yesterday, I was getting more and more frustrated. I’d see these headlines popping up saying how Biles was weak, she wasn’t mentally strong enough to deal with the pressure.
“On social media, people were accusing her of using it as an excuse to pull out of the vault because she wasn’t performing as well. I just think it’s absolute nonsense.
“She said she wasn’t in the right mental frame of mind to go and perform well enough and that she could have caused herself some damage. Every sports person knows that if you go in half-cocked, you’re going to cause yourself an injury: none more so than in gymnastics.
“She has laid down a foundation for so many athletes and people around the world to say: ‘In this moment in time, inside, something didn’t feel right’. She had the bravery and the courage to pull out of the event.
“We talk about mental health and physical health. They are both just as important as each other.
“To the people who are accusing her of not being a team player: in my mind, she could not have been more of a team player. She recognised that the moves that she was doing, she wouldn’t have been able to execute and get the scores needed for gold.
“Simone could have hid in the background. But she didn’t. She put her tracksuit back on, got out there and stood and clapped her team-mates.
“That, to me, is a champion.”
‘This could make a massive shift in gymnastics’
Nile Wilson, former British gymnast and 2016 bronze medallist, on BBC Radio 5 Live
“As athletes, particularly Simone Biles, the attention and validation comes from being a superhuman. I always call her the female Hercules and she definitely will feel all that pressure.
“This could make a massive shift in gymnastics in talking about mental health, for her to say I’m not at the mental capacity to do the biggest event as the biggest star.
“I am so proud of her. I wish her all the best and hope she’s OK and send her lots of love.”
‘This is a huge step’
British gymnast Sam Oldham, London 2012 bronze medallist, to BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat
“What Simone Biles has done is huge. Stopping and saying ‘there’s something wrong, I need help’ is a huge step. And for her to do it on the world stage at the Olympic Games, that takes bravery and courage.
“To say ‘I’m putting my mental health first, that comes before the Olympic Games’ is a massive, positive message to all the young kids who are growing up now who will have aspirations and dreams of going to the Olympic Games.”
‘No-one prepares you for being an Olympic champion’
Chris Mears, who won 3m synchronised springboard gold for Great Britain in 2016, on BBC TV
“I can relate to Simone. She feels like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders. She feels like she’s failed and she probably feels very confused and doesn’t know what’s up or down.
“After winning gold in Rio, it was so amazing. It was like all your wildest dreams coming true. Then, for me, I came crashing down. I didn’t know how to process.
“No-one teaches you how to process becoming an Olympic champion. I went into quite a deep depression. For me, what helped was therapy.
“As a man, I am saying that we do not talk enough about mental health. It is starting to happen, but it is so important. A lot of women are more open to talking about stuff. Men, we go ‘all right, lads, we’ll be fine.’
“My step-mum was diagnosed with breast cancer and that was really tough. I knew I had to be there for her and that was a big turning point for me.”
‘I am in awe of Simone’
Helen Richardson-Walsh, 2016 Olympic hockey gold medallist, on BBC Radio 5 Live
“Simone was and is amazing, but she continues to stand up and be even more amazing. What she did [in withdrawing from the team final] was incredible.
“The health of your athlete is the most important thing. Bottom line, it’s not about what medals they bring home, it’s about their physical and mental health.
“I’ve also suffered with my mental health, so I commend Simone Biles for what she’s done, putting her mental health first and standing up and being brave enough to do that. It really does take huge bravery for her to say what she’s saying right now. “