Ekt’s not often that a bronze medal becomes one of the biggest stories of an Olympic Games. But the return of Simone Biles to the Ariake centre in Tokyo on Tuesday to take part in the balance beam final after withdrawing from five other events would have made headlines even had she not ended the session smiling on the podium, clutching medal and sunflowers.
It was a fabulous finish to an incredibly difficult few days for Biles, who won the same medal in Rio in 2016 along with four golds. For fans, the bounceback is bound to raise hopes that the 24-year-old may not be about to retire from the sport she loves, but which has taken a toll on her mind and body. (Another gymnast, Italy’s Vanessa Ferrari, won silver in the floor event aged 30.) But while it is impossible not to be thrilled that Biles was able to compete, her experience resonates because of what she didn’t achieve as well as what she did.
The gymnast, used to communicating with millions of fans via social media, explained that she was suffering from “the twisties”, making her feel disoriented and unsafe in the air. But in a sporting summer in which athletes’ mental wellbeing has been a prominent theme, her more general remarks about the pressure she feels, having “the weight of the world on my shoulders” and being the “head star”, struck a powerful chord.
Competition at this level could never be anything but hard. Many athletes know that they have one shot at Olympic greatness. Partly, what is now emerging is a story about the psychological impact of elite sport that was previously hidden (and has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with Biles citing the absence of her family in Tokyo as a factor). In this regard, her openness, along with that of the footballer Tyrone Mings, who revealed this week that he had a confidence crisis before Euro 2020, can be viewed as a form of progress. The decision by the high jumpers Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Barshim to share a gold medal, rather than compete in a “jump-off”, seems somewhat in the same spirit (with its acknowledgment of the cost to the loser of a final round, rather like penalties in football).
Public discussion of the emotional demands of competition is overdue, and could be extended to other areas of life, perhaps leading to an increased focus on collaboration. When the tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open in May, she cited depression and anxiety. The British teenager Emma Raducanu left Wimbledon feeling ill and overwhelmed. Even if some stress is inevitable, it is worth reflecting on whether sporting stars could be provided with more support.
Attitudes to bullying and abuse are finally changing, three years after the USA Gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar, whose victims included Biles, was jailed. But there is no easy overall answer. The global media genie has escaped the bottle and sport’s superstars face scrutiny like never before. Of course, this brings rewards as well as stress. But the entirely unexpected moral of Biles’s Tokyo story is that winning, as well as losing, can be hard.