• Santosh Ninan


Happier times - Winning gold at 2016 Olympics

Simone Biles is the greatest gymnast in history. Her achievements have landed her in the company of the likes of Michael Jordan, Michael Phlps and Tiger Woods: athletes who are so dominant in their sport that they have no rival. She has a combined 30 world and olympic medals. She started training at the age of 8. Switching to being home schooled allowed her to train 30 hours a week. Here she was laying a firm foundation for the glory to follow.

But Biles does not come from the type of background that would later spell global success. The first 6 years of her life were spent in and out of foster care as her mother was unable to care for her and her siblings. She has a brother who was charged (and later aquitted) for murder. The saddest chapter is that she was sexually molested by Larry Nassar, the team physician for the US womens gymnastic team. Nassar has been accused of assualting upwards of 500 young women. Biles is the only one of his victims competing in the Olympics this year. Knowing this young woman's back story only compounds her incredible success.

She had a shaky start at the 2020 Olympics (currently taking place in Japan.) She faultered on a few key moves. And then on July 28, Biles withdrew from competition in the team final event. The reason for her withdrawal was not due to a physcial injury, but a deeper injury. Citing stress, she said she needed to take a break and work on her "mindfulness". Mindfulness is a pop word these days in psychology circles. It means simply being more aware of your current context, rather than brooding over the past or feeling anxious about the future. It is a calming technique used in therapy to relieve anxiety and stress.

Biles' withdrawl comes just a little over a month after another athlete also withdrew from an elite competition. 23 year old Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from compettiion in Wimbledon. She had previosuly also withdrawn from the French Open.

Osaka proudly raising the U.S. Open trophy last fall.

It remains to be seen if she will compete this year.

Part of her statement after withdrawing from the French Open:

"I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety. I get really nervous and find it stressful.... So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences."

These were painful decisions to make. I cannot imagine having to parade your mental health in front of the entire world. Both women should be appluded for being honest and practicisng the self care they need. They have received support from colleagues, journalists, sporting officials and fans alike.

But ..... not all the commentary has been positive. Right wing commentators have been scathing in their criticisms of both athletes. The condemnation Osaka received pales in comparison to the vitriole poured out on Biles.

Here's the worst that I found:

"You're representing your nation, you selfish sociopath.

You are weak, immature and a shame to the nation."

This beautiful observation comes from Turning Point founder and host, Charlie Kirk. Other critiques have been similar:

  • she is abandoning her team

  • she is not physically injured, so why withdraw?

  • she's being selfish

  • she needs to fulfill her obligations

It is the critics who are being selfish. Their drive to have vicarious pride and bragging rights through the incredible athletic prowess from a young woman have been thwarted. Now, they need to retreat back into their small, resentment filled echo chambers, where they can continue to spew their bile at whoever the current easy target might be.

Biles and Osaka withdrew not out of selfishness. They withdrew for self care reasons.

I am stunned that mental illness continues to be derided by some as not being real. Or else as something that can be overcome purely through grit and self determination. We don't tell people with cancer to "just get over it". We extend compassion and empathy. And ensure that they get the care that they need.

A friend of mine put it well:

"When you have a physical illness, people run toward you.

When you have a mental illness, people run away from you."

The stats on mental health lead me to believe that we all know people who are suffering in this way. Be the one who spills out sympathy and compassion on your loved one who suffers, instead of retreating back into the safety of your fear and ignorance. I hope that both Biles and Osaka will both bounce back stronger than ever. And their future victories will be double victories because we have all seen their very public struggles.

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