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Simone Biles pulled out of the Olympics citing mental health issues, but everything has two sides to it. What could these be, in this case?
Simone Biles, arguably, the best gymnast the sport has ever seen, withdrew from representing America in the team gymnastics event a couple of days back in the ongoing Tokyo Olympic games.
Biles withdrew not because of a physical injury but because she was worried about her mental state of mind. In the days and weeks leading up to the games Biles suggested that the pressure to lead the American gymnastic team from the front to achieving gold medal glory and living up to her potential as GOAT took its toll on her mental health. And the best way to serve her team, her teammates and her country was to do the right thing and withdraw.
As things stand – she has yet to decide whether she will compete for the individual all-round title and also for each individual event separately.
Predictably, much of the sporting world exploded at her withdrawal in the middle of the Olympic games even as the average Jack and Jill have their own take on her decision.
But before I explain why – let’s quickly look at what folks around the world are saying.
Her own teammates Jordan Chiles, Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum came out in her support calling her everything from being a role model to kids all around the world and being an inspiration to other gymnasts as well. The USA Gymnastics organization praised Biles for her ‘brave’ actions by putting her mental health ahead of all sporting glory. Celebrities all around hailed Biles’ decision to withdraw. Her decision was seen as a decisive step taken by someone in a position of high influence willing to have an open and honest conversation about a topic, that even now is not discussed with the brevity that it deserves.
Predictably, the naysayers, especially those from the right and the right-wing media around the world (especially from Biles’ home country, the USA) went ape shit against Biles’ decision. Talk show host Buck Sexton wondered why Biles’ decision to drop out of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in a sporting event that takes place once every four years (five this time around) was considered ‘brave’? Sexton asks, “Why is this brave? What’s brave about not being brave? Cause that’s what we’re talking about here. This is ‘Oh, you didn’t stand up to the bully?’ So to speak… No, I think that’s the not brave move.”
Writer Amber Athey called Biles a ‘quitter’ and Piers Morgan tweeted, “‘Mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport? What a joke.”
After reading through some of the more ferocious arguments posed by both sides – I wondered about how I really felt about this hot-button topic.
So – while I sometimes call myself Dr. Roopa Swaminathan (on days my self-esteem takes a battering or I simply wish to show off!) I am NOT a medical doctor. And other than dealing with an extraordinary tragedy in my life this past December 2020 that really affected my mental well-being for awhile – I have no practical knowledge or expertise to pontificate on mental health issues. I’m writing this as an ordinary citizen who has questions about what’s happening around me.
And I have to be honest. When I read yesterday about Biles’ decision – something didn’t quite feel right to me. I’m still very conflicted about Biles’ decision and what that represents for sports, for younger kids who look up to her and the world we live in.
Let me make this very clear. BRAVO to Biles for understanding that she had mental issues and would rather pull out instead of jeopardizing her and her team’s chances in the Olympics. In a world where there is so much stigma around mental health – Biles lead from the front and put her Olympic dreams on hold because she wanted to do right by her own well-being.
And those who wonder…how come an athlete who made the extraordinary sacrifice that Biles had made thus far in her life to get to the pinnacle of possible Olympic glory only to give it up at the very last minute? What about all that time, the energy, the training, the sacrifices she made to get to that coveted spot? I’m sure NO ONE feels more gutted by her decision that Biles herself does.
I want this clearly understood that I GET THIS. AND, I, like millions around the world, APPLAUD her for this very honest decision.
I’d be a liar if I said that a part of me wondered. And felt conflicted. I wish I could say that I did not have questions about her decision.
My big concern even writing this story was that I kind of saw both sides of the story and they both felt kind of right. Biles has EVERY right to take a backseat if she felt that she mentally wasn’t in the right frame-of-mind. She was worried that her lack of mental focus could – potentially – lead to her making mistakes and physically hurting herself. She withdrew from the team finals because she did not want her poor performance affecting her team’s chances.
That makes perfect sense to me. And bravo to her for recognizing the truth behind her decision.
I know, I know…there should NOT be a BUT where I placed the BUT above. And that’s because we now live in a very binary, black-or-white-with-no-shades-of -grey, world when it comes to a lot of issues that exist around us.
Look – there are many issues where right is right and wrong is wrong. There cannot be any BUTS when it comes to racism, gender inequalities, physical, mental and sexual abuse, child and adult slavery, murder and many more. The KKK suck. White supremacists suck. War sucks. Those are clear as crystal.
Biles’ situation – to me – does not fall under the same spectrum. Let me try and explain why.
When Biles said she withdrew because she wanted to do right by herself – it did feel a bit self-serving. It bothered me was that this was a team event (and as sportsperson who had experience performing under pressure) Biles came to the Olympics with a certain responsibility towards her team. And then to actually compete for one day, do very poorly and then withdraw…it bothered me.
Biles also argued that she did not want to jeopardize the chances of her team. But when the most experienced member of the team withdraws that means the much-younger and very inexperienced younger teammates now have to do the heavy-lifting and compete in the biggest stage of their lives. And it’s one they were just not prepared for. Add to that – they had to carry the heavy burden of their country’s expectations on their inexperienced shoulders – and I wonder about their mental health as well. I also wonder if I would’ve felt this way had Biles pulled out of the Olympics completely instead of just the team event? I don’t know.
I hope I did not come off sounding callous here. Or that I don’t have any empathy for those suffering from mental health issues. That’s not it at all. I’m just not sure if this situation is one where there is a clear demarcation between what’s right and what’s wrong. I, genuinely, understand both sides of the issue and feel there’s merit on both sides.
Which brings me to this question…do we always have to pick sides? And as serious as mental health issues are…does this fall under the category of a shades-of-grey option? And if it doesn’t, I would love for readers to write in and school me on why this is very much a black-or-white issue.
Basically, I wrote this post to see if we can have open conversations about BOTH sides of SOME issues in an adult manner without anger, name-calling and feeling a sense of betrayal when someone thinks differently.
A version of this was first published here.
Image source: YouTube
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Hi...I'm Roopa. I'm also a messy optimist! I'm an academic-cum-artist. I'm a writer, filmmaker and professor of creative writing. Academically, I've a Double Masters and a Phd read more...
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