The superstar American gymnast Biles on Tuesday stunned the Tokyo Olympics when she pulled out of the women’s team final, saying: “I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardise my health and my wellbeing.”
The 24-year-old had already hinted that she was feeling the immense pressure in the Japanese capital, writing on Instagram: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”
Her participation in the rest of the Olympics is now uncertain.
Within hours there was an outpouring of sympathy on social media for Biles, who is already a four-time Olympic gold medallist, that went beyond sport.
Writing on Twitter, Henrietta H. Fore, executive director of UNICEF, thanked Biles “for being a role model and showing the world it’s okay to prioritise your mental health”.
Also on Tuesday, Osaka — who lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony — suffered a shock early exit in the tennis.
As a home hope and one of the faces of the Games, the 23-year-old said that there was “a lot of pressure”.
The Japanese had only just returned after two months away from the game after revealing that she had been suffering depression.
Biles and Osaka, who are aged just seven months apart, are by no means the only young athletes to suffer in the public eye.
At Wimbledon earlier this month, 18-year-old Briton Emma Raducanu came out of nowhere to reach the fourth round, only to retire from the match with what was first described as “breathing difficulties”.
The teenager subsequently explained that “whole experience caught up with me”.
It is not just young women. After Raducanu’s explanation, England and Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford said that he too had suffered something similar when he was a teenager.
In 2018, NBA star Kevin Love said that he had suffered a panic attack during a match, while Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps and England cricketer Marcus Trescothick have also openly documented their mental struggles.
Julie-Ann Tullberg, an expert in sports psychology and sports journalism at Monash University in Australia, told AFP that “mental health has long been swept under the carpet as a reason of underperformance in high-pressure sporting events such as the Olympic Games”.
“However, athletes are now willing to talk about their pressures openly,” she said.
People deal with “performance anxiety” in all walks of life, said Tullberg, and that has been exacerbated by people across the world living in intermittent lockdowns in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
“But people are now more willing to talk about it (their mental health),” she said.
“There are support networks offered to us all the time, we’re encouraged to seek support, and people are now taking those options because they’re not so fearful of the repercussions if it’s known in their workplace that they’re struggling.”
Tullberg said that the unprecedented anti-virus measures facing athletes at the Tokyo Games, where they are largely confined to the Olympic Village, had undoubtedly taken a toll on competitors.
“I reckon the bubble of the Olympic village is having a big impact on athletes,” she said.
“They used to be able to go out and party after their events, but now they’re not able to do that, for the first time in recent history.”
Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said that Biles’ admission would help “normalise the conversation”.
“There has always been, within the athletic world, the emphasis on appearing physically fit and appearing mentally fit,” she told CBC/Radio-Canada.
“And that can further perpetuate a kind of silent suffering and self-isolation.”
Aly Raisman, a three-time Olympic gold medallist and a former team-mate of Biles’s, said that Biles had been under immense pressure for months leading up to Tokyo because of the weight of expectation.
“There’s only so much someone can take, she’s human,” Raisman told US television.
The 27-year-old, who retired last year, raised doubts about what kind of psychological support there was for Biles and other American athletes.
“When I was training there really weren’t resources for us to talk about our mental health or even ways to understand it,” Raisman told ESPN.
“We need to be asking the organisations like USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee: What are you doing to support your athletes and how can we prevent athletes feeling like they are struggling so much that they can’t finish the competition?”