Standing on the podium, the national anthem playing, your country’s flag being lifted and a shiny medal hanging around your neck. That is the traditional “gold medal moment” every four years at the Olympic games. However, much like the year 2020 as a whole, this Olympic games had a different moment.
United States Gymnast Simone Biles is widely considered the best in the world and potentially the greatest of all-time. After a successful 2016 Olympic Games and World Championship campaign, Biles was expected to climb the podium multiple times during the 2020 Olympic games. Instead, she shined the spotlight on something far more important than a medal: mental health.
Biles unexpectedly pulled out of four individual finals events (all-around, vault, uneven bars and floor) because of a disorienting condition known to gymnasts as “the twisties”. This condition affects an athlete’s ability to control their body while in the air as their mind and body are not in sync.
Gymnastics Coach Cecile Canqueteau-Landi said that Biles is “first [athlete] at a meet at the biggest stage, to say ‘I’m not okay’”. Landi added that she would not have had the guts to say, ‘I’m not okay’.
“I don’t think I would have [imagined], no. I never would have imagined someone saying it, but I know I would have not said a word. I would have just pretended to be okay, and keep going and probably not end well.”
– Coach Cecile Canqueteau-Landi
Biles’ courage drew applause from around the world and started a conversation on mental health in sports.
Naomi Osaka, a Japanese Tennis Player, withdrew from the French Open for mental health reasons and went on to lite the torch at the Tokyo Olympic Games. She later graced the cover of TIME magazine titled It’s OK to not be OK as she too opened up the door for a conversation on mental health.
“I say put your mental health first,” Biles said. “Because if you don’t, you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to.”