Lessons to be learnt from Simone Biles’ exit from Tokyo Olympics

Dubai - Reading the woman beneath the athlete

By Malavika Varadan

Published: Thu 5 Aug 2021, 5:09 PM

Last updated: Thu 5 Aug 2021, 7:34 PM

Earlier this week the news headlines read “Tokyo Olympics: Simone Biles out of gymnastics finals citing medical issue”.

For those of you who have never heard of her, Simone Biles is, arguably, the greatest gymnast of all time. She has won 7 national championships, 19 world titles and 5 Olympic medals (4 of them gold).

She chose to not participate in the finals citing her mental health as the reason and went on to acknowledge that she was having a case of the “twisties”, a term that means that you lose track of your positioning mid-air, making you feel like you have no control of how you will land. When you are flipping, twisting and leaping like she is, this could mean the difference between life and death. This condition, experts believe, is stress induced.

The reaction she received after her announcement was overwhelming. Celebrities, political figures, regular people tweeted and posted about her, using words like “brave” and “courageous”. One particular tweet she posted made me tear up — “The outpouring of love and support I’ve received has made me realise I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics, which I never truly believed before.”

I remember looking at that tweet and thinking that this was a moment in history. We were on the brink of something here, at the tipping point of the conversation we are having as a generation — about mental health, about achievement and about what it means to be brave.

Simone Biles has just made history this week. She has made history not by competing, but by choosing to put her mental health first, by choosing her body and mind. Something we, as regular people, so often don’t do. Ours is a generation that wears burnout and exhaustion as a badge of honour. That seems to think that “power through” is the answer to it all.

But, why? For as long as I can remember, every advertisement for sports shoes, every story we were told about athletes who made their country proud, every overly filtered Instagram post has told us just one thing — never quit, never walk away — always persevere, and in fine print at the bottom, ‘no matter what the cost’.

Watching this young athlete spark a conversation in every newsroom and living room around the world has made me reflect on what we term as winning. When I speak to young people about Simone Biles or Naomi Osaka, I unanimously see an understanding and compassion in their eyes. “She should do what’s best for her” said one 11-year-old to me as we read the story, “She isn’t a quitter, she is a winner”.

The world is always telling you — especially as a person of colour, as a woman — to push harder, to never give up, to never quit, to pick yourself up and move. Because you can, you must. Because hundreds of generations before you would have killed for this opportunity, because you are lucky to be here. Because you stand on the shoulders of many who did not have it this good.

Simone Biles’s story is a reminder that you don’t HAVE to. That it’s okay to say no, and that getting to the finish line, broken — is not the best way to win the race.

Her story, to me, is a reminder that the conversation about mental health is changing — and that the next generation is one that we must empower to not only compete and win, but also to walk away when they need to. That finally, ‘bravery’ is starting to look like a young woman who chose to do what’s right for her.


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