Simone Biles’ 2020 Olympics looked different than anyone could’ve imagined. Widely expected to sweep several medal events, the decorated gymnast’s fortunes suddenly changed when she experienced a case of the twisties. Fearful that the phenomenon would leave her disoriented as she performed risky skills, Biles stepped back from the competition to focus on her mental health.
She waited, trained, and cheered on Team USA from the sidelines. Then she returned this week with a modified routine to claim bronze on the balance beam. The third-place victory surprised Biles, who told the media: “I wasn’t expecting to walk away with a medal. I was just going out there doing this for me.”
Biles’ choice to prioritize her mental health so that she could, in fact, compete made the Olympics what it always should’ve been: a celebration of how our greatest achievements are rooted in our complicated humanity.
Some viewers want their Olympics free of discussions about mental health and well-being, mistaking those subjects as a distraction, or only worthy of consideration when the outcome is triumph. The idea that whatever plagues us silently can be suppressed, clearing the way for greatness, is a comforting belief in a world where that rarely happens. Instead, we often slog forward, sometimes at war with ourselves, trying to seize and find joy in the opportunities we receive. We may succeed. Other times, despite our very best efforts, we don’t. To see that unfold with honesty and vulnerability on the world’s stage, from one of the greatest competitors of all time, is a gift.
Some viewers want their Olympics free of discussions about mental health and well-being.
What the Olympics often sells to its global audience — don’t forget, it’s a billion-dollar business in which stars like Biles help generate massive revenue for corporate brands and media companies — are emotional yet tidy stories about overcoming adversity. That heartbreak could be injury, poverty, traumatic loss, bad luck, or other challenges many of us face; ones that could certainly lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. But the point of these neatly packaged narratives is that the athlete is expected to conquer their so-called demons and go on to medal, preferably snagging gold. It gives the rest of us hope that if we grit our teeth hard enough, we too can rise above our circumstances.
The reality of the human experience is much different. Rarely is our suffering fully behind us. We learn to live with it — and it lives with us. Imagine an Olympics where all athletes felt empowered to disclose their struggles with mental health or illness without fear of being branded “weak” or “a quitter.” Imagine if they could talk less about overcoming their depression, as if it’s something to defeat, and more about how it coexists with their athletic ambitions. Of course, people living with mental illness can chose the language that feels most authentic to their experience, but it’s worth questioning a framework that reduces everything to a battle in which there’s a winner and loser.
Biles, along with other athletes at the 2020 Olympics, has shown us what that looks like. Raven Saunders, who won silver in shot put for the U.S., has been open about experiencing depression, anxiety, and suicidal feelings. When Saunders crossed her arms above her head on the medal podium as a protest symbol, the gesture was meant to make people from oppressed and marginalized communities feel seen, she explained.
“Shout out to all my people dealing with mental health,” she said. “We understand that there’s so many people that are looking up to us, that are looking to see if we say something or if we speak up for them.”
Katherine Nye, a Team USA weightlifter who won silver in Tokyo, has said learning that she has bipolar II disorder actually helped her career. With effective treatment and self-care strategies, her well-being and performance improved. “I hope that I can show people what it means to be bipolar…” she told Yahoo! Sports.
These complex stories do resonate with audiences. The outpouring of love for Biles made that clear. Her loudest critics, who called her a selfish quitter for withdrawing from competition, were likely in the minority. When Reputation, a company that gathers and analyzes consumer feedback from digital platforms, evaluated Biles-related Twitter mentions at Mashable’s request, it found that the vast majority of the most shared and liked posts were supportive of the gymnast. Trending hashtags and adjectives from the day she stepped down until the day after her bronze medal win included #mentalhealthmatters, #goat, best, and proud. Reputation found similar support for Saunders, Nye, and former Olympian Michael Phelps, who provided commentary at the games and is a mental health advocate.
Let Olympians be complicated human beings, not superheroes.
NFL player Solomon Thomas knows firsthand the power of talking about emotional and psychological well-being. When he’s discussed the experience of losing his older sister to suicide, and the subsequent depression and suicidal feelings he endured, his phone lights up with social media comments, texts, and direct messages from people expressing their relief and thanks to hear that someone like him, a defensive tackle for the Las Vegas Raiders, knows how they feel. Thomas, who founded a nonprofit suicide prevention organization, says that Biles prioritizing her mental health and physical safety demonstrated “true strength and vulnerability.”
The next Olympics should reflect what we’ve learned during this competition. Let Olympians be complicated human beings, not superheroes expected to provide a rush of vicarious victory to the masses no matter what challenges they face. Don’t simplify their stories so that they fit a single, unforgiving narrative. Treat their mental health struggles, when they chose to share them publicly, not as a plot point to overcome but as experiences that shape who they are as competitors and people.
Thomas can see this future for professional athletes, even if he’s not an Olympian.
“I envision it as a world where we can be real with each other and, you know, be vulnerable,” he says. “We’re all more common than we think. We’re all struggling in our own ways.”
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text LineCrisis Text LineCrisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. Contact the NAMI HelpLineNAMI HelpLineNAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. ET, or email [email protected][email protected]. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention LifelineNational Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is aa listlist of international resourcesof international resources.