Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast of all time, withdrew on Tuesday from the women’s team competition at the Tokyo Olympics, citing a medical issue. “She will be assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions,” USA Gymnastics said on Twitter.
The cause was not injury, she said. “Physically, I feel good; I’m in shape,” Biles told NBC Today. “Emotionally, that kind of varies on the time and moment. Coming here to the Olympics and being the head star isn’t an easy feat, so we’re just trying to take it one day at a time, and we’ll see.”
Biles had spoken recently with The New York Times about the unique pressure that comes with being an athlete who has never lost. What she did not refer to, but what some scholars of women in sports suggested, was that her ability to excel, and even to perform safely, depended strongly on her emotional state. And if that wasn’t right, the consequences could have been dangerous, given the skill and risk so many of her moves require.
And, these experts emphasized, it was her right to call things to a halt.
“I think it’s high time that athletes start putting their physical and mental health ahead of the sort of arbitrary ideas of national greatness,” said Faye Linda Wachs, professor of sociology at California State Polytechnic University.
Many people consider it an “honor to represent your country” in the Olympics, Wachs said, but athletes are people who have earned their achievements and have the right to withdraw from competition like any worker, especially when the safety risks are high.
“Athletes are expected to play with a broken hand, and this is what you’re supposed to do, but at the end of the day, this could be a liability to the team,” said Paula Davis, CEO of the Stress & Resilience Institute, an organization that partners with corporations to address workplace burnout and stress-management.
After her vault in the first rotation of the women’s team event on Tuesday, Biles decided to sit out and cheered on teammates Sunisa Lee, Grace McCallum and Jordan Chiles. The United States finished second to the Russian team in the team competition.
Davis told The 19th that she still thinks about gymnast Kerri Strug vaulting with an injured ankle in the 1996 Olympics and is relieved that this expectation — this course of action in response to both emotional and physical obstacles — is slowly changing.
“It was incredibly brave,” Davis said of Biles’ decision, anticipating the pushback she will receive on public platforms for her decision to sit out.
Cheryl Cooky, a professor at Purdue University who teaches a course called Sport in American Culture, said the response to Biles’ decision and how it’s covered in sports broadcasts will vary; already social media and news organizations have been alight with competing perspectives on Biles’ decision. While there has been some improvement in Olympics coverage, she said, there is still progress to be made.
“The vast majority of people who are in various editorial positions and writing positions within sports media are men, predominantly White men,” said Cooky. “And most major sports outlets do quite poorly when it comes to gender and racial parity.”
Biles has also shouldered additional social responsibility — and pressure — by using her platform to speak out about the legacy of abuse in her sport. Former team doctor Larry Nassar pled guilty in November 2017 to sexual assault; for years, USA gymnastics looked the other way as he molested athletes, including Biles and her teammates.
“I’m going to go out there and represent the USA, represent [training facility] World Champions Centre, and represent Black and Brown girls over the world,” Biles told The New York Times last week. “At the end of the day, I’m not representing USA Gymnastics.”
A sense of national pride is central to the Olympic games, but after more than a year of tumult, including a global pandemic and its devastating consequences, athletes are prioritizing their wellbeing and taking the time to vocalize their needs.