Home >Opinion >Views >In praise of the gymnast who made us all discuss what we must

In several disciplines of sport, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is a sign of perfectionism. This is especially so in gymnastics, where even perfection can be perfected further, as proven by the past performances of Simone Biles, an American gymnast who does not deserve the flak she got for not outperforming herself once again in Tokyo. Earlier this week, she withdrew from the gymnastics all-round final at the 2020 Olympic Games, citing her inability to participate on account of a mental-health disruption. With a haul of four Olympic gold medals and a silver and bronze apiece, not to mention a fandom across the world, she had an extraordinary burden of expectations to defy beyond just gravity. She flubbed her opening vault and found she could not go on. “It’s just me in my head," she later said, “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being." Aspects of health that relate to the mind have got in the way of many top performers in recent times. It is not all that uncommon. Think of tennis champs Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, swimmer Michael Phelps, basketball player Kevin Love and wrestler Ronda Rousey. Yet, Biles’ action has attracted a barrage of criticism.

For a world champion representing her country in the glare of a global audience, Biles’ withdrawal was taken as too casual, even as her reason was dismissed as the product of whimsy and her motivations placed under a scanner. Various voices on air labelled her “selfish" for what they saw as desertion. It was a team event that she had exited, and so her “quitting on her teammates", as one voice put it, was slammed by some critics as a matter of “shame" for America. Allegations of betrayal arose too. Without Biles, the US team lost that final contest to Russia, which some of her co-citizens seem to have taken as a special affront. For all these harsh words, though, she has also evoked empathy on social media. Not just her fellow gymnasts, athletes across disciplines and countries have leapt to her support, several of them testifying that it could happen to just about anybody. Indeed, what happens in one’s head may be invisible and difficult to diagnose, but should be taken every bit as seriously as a physical injury that’s visible to all and easy to treat. This is a message that needed to get around the world, and thanks to her frankness, it has. In a press address, Biles revealed that she’d got a case of “twisties", a term that describes a mental snap that causes one to lose spatial awareness in the midst of a performance. This might sound like stage fright to the uninitiated, but to a gymnast, it can be the difference between landing a perfect 10 and breaking one’s neck. The choice she made was sensible.

As for the charge of selfishness, it crumbles in the light of what made her a global celebrity outside the gymnasium. In 2018, she spoke up against a sexual predator, a team doctor, as one among his many victims, and exposed the sordid state of sports training in the US. For many of her fans, this act of hers mattered more than the glitter of her gold medals. Her sponsor brands have stood by her, Visa and Uber Eats among them. If they are confident that the esteem in which Biles is held will endure, they have made a smart bet. It is not just the leap off a mat that will assure as much, but her candour—and the conversations she opened that the world needs to have.

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