Simone Biles pulled out of the women’s gymnastics team final at the Olympics Tuesday after a rough performance on the vault. Without its star, the US team landed the silver medal, coming in behind Russia and breaking its 11-year winning streak in world competitions.
Afterward, Biles addressed the media in tears, explaining that she’d withdrawn for mental health reasons. “Whenever you get in a high-stress situation you kind of freak out,” she said. “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and wellbeing.”
Of course, Biles is still very much a winner: A four-time Olympic gold medalist and the most-awarded female gymnast in history, she is regularly cited as the greatest of all time. And she may yet compete in individual events at this year’s Olympics. But as she reminded the press today, Olympians are “not just athletes, we’re people at the end of the day.”
When we talk about moments like Biles’ withdrawal, or Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open and surprise loss in the third round of the Olympics tennis tournament, it’s essential that we recognize the athletes’ humanity—not just for their sake, but for the sake of developing a more compassionate cultural discourse about success, failure, and what lies in between.
Even as Biles smashes records and performs gymnastic feats that no other woman has ever attempted, she’s been open and vulnerable about her struggles. The 24-year-old has spoken about how the pressure of competing gets to her—“I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times,” she posted on Instagram ahead of the team finals—and about the depression she dealt with after coming forward to add her voice to the long list of sexual abuse allegations against former USA Gymnastics team doctor Lawrence Nassar. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Biles sounded quite understandably disillusioned with USA Gymnastics, which she’s previously said failed to protect its athletes, and was forthright about the toll her sport had taken on her. Asked about the happiest moment in her career, she responded, “Honestly, probably my time off.”
Such comments ought to make us reconsider the weight our society puts on winning in the first place. Both Biles’ and Osaka’s very public discussions about their mental health difficulties are a reminder that competing at such a high level comes at a cost. Michael Phelps, too, has spoken about the depression he faced even as he racked up Olympic gold medals in swimming, calling upon the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee to prioritize athletes’ psychological wellbeing.
The Olympians’ openness comes at the same time that a wave of people in other professions are talking about quitting their jobs due to burnout or to otherwise protect their mental health, particularly after the stresses of working through Covid-19—culminating in what some are calling the Great Resignation. We seem to be living through a time when people are newly ready to acknowledge the mental health issues that our work can cause or exacerbate, and that sometimes the most responsible thing to do is to take a step back rather than to tell yourself to toughen up.
The outpouring of support for Biles on Tuesday suggests that a lot of people are ready to go even further—to not just acknowledge the need for boundaries, rest, and self-care, but to move beyond the black-and-white way of thinking that divides people into winners or losers, champions or fallen stars. The truth is that a person’s value doesn’t lie in their ability to sustain peak performance; that losses and missteps don’t negate a person’s accomplishments; that every life inevitably has its ups and downs.
“We hope America still loves us,” Biles told the press after the team finals. How encouraging it will be for today’s young people if America, and the rest of the world, shows Biles that we do.