Gymnast Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from Olympic events has sparked a heated debate in the United States about mental health and the “no pain, no gain” mentality surrounding sports.
Tulsa experts weighed in on what factors are at play in Biles’ stunning withdrawal and what it could mean for the future.
Mark Brewin, a professor at the University of Tulsa who served as a researcher on a series of books about the modern Olympics, highlighted how Biles’ decision represents athlete autonomy.
“There has been a shift in power toward the athlete and maybe away from coaches and administrators,” Brewin said. “They’re thinking more about what’s best for the athlete rather than thinking what’s best for the United States’ gold medal efforts.”
In 2018, Biles publicly revealed that Larry Nassar, then the team doctor for USA Gymnastics, had sexually abused her. Her revelation came alongside those of 150 other women who testified in court that Nassar had sexually molested them for years in the guise of medical care.
Despite the abuse, Biles returned to the USAG, vowing to hold the organization accountable for its previous negligence and to create a safer environment for future competitors. Biles hoped that by her continuing to compete, Nassar and his victims would not be swept under the rug, Biles said in an interview with “Today Show” host Hoda Kotb.
“One of the things that (the Nassar) case highlighted was that the athletes themselves didn’t have a lot of power,” Brewin said. “They didn’t necessarily feel empowered to go to anybody. They weren’t able to stand up for themselves.”
Brewin went on to explain how Biles — as the face of U.S. gymnastics and a two-time Olympian who is widely regarded as the greatest of all time — has the platform to stand up for herself and others.
“Nobody in U.S. gymnastics wants to be accused now of forcing athletes to do things they shouldn’t be doing,” Brewin said. “And you can see other moments in Olympic history in which athletes were pushed to perform in instances where they shouldn’t have been, didn’t want to be pushed or didn’t necessarily feel that they were able to speak up for themselves.”
In the 1996 Olympics, U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug severely injured her ankle after under-rotating the landing of her first vault attempt. Strug told her coach, Bela Karolyi, that she couldn’t feel her leg and asked if she had to attempt the second vault. Karolyi told her to “shake it out” because “we got to go one more time,” Karolyi recounted in a post-Olympic interview.
Despite the severe injury, Strug performed the second vault. She stuck the landing before collapsing to the mat in pain. Her team won gold, and Strug was championed as an American hero. Whether she ultimately wanted or did not want to perform the second vault, she was not afforded the luxury of self-agency.
Fast forward 25 years, and the conversation has changed. Simone Biles, 24, is an adult. She has the platform, prestige, mental health awareness and the right to make decisions regarding her personal safety, Brewin explained.
Terri White, CEO of Mental Health Association Oklahoma, weighed in on the “strong tie” between mental and physical health.
“When you are in a sport that requires your full concentration or it can be dangerous, … you need to be 100% present,” White said. “Simone had the strength to step back.”
At the U.S. Classic in May, Biles completed a Yurchenko double pike vault — a stunt so dangerous no other woman has ever attempted it in competition, according to NBC Sports. A misstep in a stunt that dangerous could result in severe injury, paralysis or worse. White applauded Biles’ commitment to her mental well-being and safety.
“That is the decision we should all make if we are not able to fully present in a dangerous moment,” White said.
For decades, elite athletics has harbored a cut-throat environment. Karolyi, Strug’s coach, also coached Nadia Comaneci, the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the Olympics. According to author Stejarel Olaru, Karolyi was known to starve, slap and deny his gymnasts medical attention in the name of improvement.
This “no pain no gain” mentality in sports is something sports psychologist and researcher Lisa Cromer knows well. Cromer has studied stigma in mental health as well as resilience in athletes, and her research has been cited by the International Olympic Committee.
“She has an injury that people can’t see, and this is so largely related to the stigma of mental health in athletes,” Cromer said. “When we talk about mental toughness, often that leads to this very unhealthy perspective of just pushing through.”
Cromer explained that if Biles had a broken leg, we wouldn’t expect her ‘to wrap it in a steel cast and push through.’ Although elite athletes often need to have a high pain tolerance in order to train, Cromer believes there are healthy and unhealthy versions of pushing one’s limits.
“We (American culture) wait until something is really broken, and then we try to fix it through medications or operations,” Cromer said. Cromer went on to explain that there should be a shift to a ‘dental approach’ in athletic mental health— an approach with regular, preventative measures and check-ups — and away from the “don’t fix it until it is broken” attitude.
“Human beings are no commodities,” Cromer said. “We need to value life, wellness and integrity over what they can produce for us.”
Following both withdrawals, the nation has taken to social media to share both criticism of and support for Biles. Biles, who is quite active on social media, has been liking tweets in favor of her decision to step back, but it’s fair to assume she has also seen the negative backlash.
“No one’s mental health is immune to repeated or high-volumes of negative comments,” White said. “And it’s important to remember that mental health issues affect one out of every four Oklahomans every year. … It can be family; it can be an Olympic athlete. …
“There is courage and strength in addressing your mental health. Mental health is absolutely treatable.”
White hopes Biles’ strength will inspire others to address and prioritize their mental health. In Oklahoma, citizens in crisis can dial 211 to connect with mental health professionals as well as take a free, mental health assessment on mhaok.org.
In many ways, Biles has changed the way Americans view athletes and their mental well-being.
“Where stigma has kept people silent, she has not been silent,” Cromer said. “What she has been doing is far more than going for gold. I think that she actually has been trying to make societal change.”
Biles is slated to compete in four more Olympic events before the conclusion of the 2021 games, but as she has demonstrated, Biles alone has the agency to decide whether she is mentally prepared to compete.