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Biles Highlights Unique Stresses Athletes Feel At Olympics

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Gregory Bull
The Florida Channel
Coach Laurent Landi embraces Simone Biles, after she exited the team final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in Tokyo. The 24-year-old reigning Olympic gymnastics champion Biles huddled with a trainer after landing her vault. She then exited the competition floor with the team doctor.

Simone Biles pulled out of the women's gymnastics Olympics team finals competition for mental health reasons. A winner of five Olympic medals, Biles' reason was the pressure she carries.

Star gymnast Simone Biles cited her mental health concerns for withdrawing from the individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympics.

"It's been a long Olympic process, it's been a long year," she told reporters after she stopped competing in the team event. "And I think we're just a little bit too stressed out."

Biles' teammates applauded her decision to take care of her mental well-being. But she's not the only athlete who talked about the pressures of performing at the Games.

After winning gold in the 1500 freestyle event, swimmer Katie Ledecky broke down in tears. The six-time Olympic champion told reporters that while she was competing, she choked up with every stroke, thinking about her grandparents. Ledecky said she understands some of what Biles is going through.

"Simone has so many eyes on her," she told reporters. "The cameras follow you around, and you can feel like a lot of people are watching you, and every move you make is being watched and judged."

Even before this week, the organizers of the Games say they prepared to help athletes cope. The International Olympic Committee brought in mental health officers for athletes and coaches to Tokyo. There is a 24/7 help line for them, and at the Olympic Village, where the athletes are staying, there are psychiatrists and psychologists.

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USA Gymnastics said Biles will be evaluated daily before deciding if she will participate in next week’s individual events. Jade Carey, who finished ninth in qualifying, will take Biles’ place in the all-around.

"We wholeheartedly support Simone's decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being," USA Gymnastics said. "Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many."

The American athletes also have their own group of experts ready to help the athletes through crises.

"It's been really stressful with COVID and the protocols, we have a number of athletes who've been caught up either with COVID or contact tracing," says Jess Bartley, director of mental health services for Team USA. "The protocols in general can be kind of isolating. It's a very different experience at the games."

Bartley said there are many stresses at the Olympics. For example, "If you didn't compete as expected or you're trying to balance performance with just life. "

Bartley says the American team has a website filled with resources, an anonymous mental health support line and a 50-page mental health emergency action plan for dealing with things like depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse.

Bartley says she and her support team based in the U.S. are ready to help identify issues the coaches, for example, may see with struggling athletes: "understanding what comes up if there is a quarantine, what comes up if somebody doesn't perform and now their family's back home versus being here to support them," she says. "So it's just being able to meet the athletes where they are and understand what they need in the moment."

Biles joins some other high-profile athletes in the Olympic space — overwhelmingly females — who have been talking openly about mental health, a topic that had been taboo in sports for seemingly forever.

  • Tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, never went to Wimbledon and lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies. After her early exit in the Olympic tennis competition this week, she conceded that the cauldron was a bit too much to handle.
  • American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson made no secret of the issues she faced as she prepared for an Olympic journey that never happened. She said she used marijuana to help mask the pain of her birth mother’s death, to say nothing of the pressure of running the 100 meters.
  • Dutch cyclist Tom Dumoulin left training camp in January to clear his head, saying he was finding it “very difficult for me to know how to find my way as Tom Dumoulin the cyclist.” He resumed training in May; on Wednesday, he won a silver medal in the men’s individual time trials.

Bartley says her team is sharing resources with other teams at the Games.

"We've kind of joked with some of the other countries that this is one place we don't have to be as competitive. And so we've shared our emergency action plan widely."

The American team is also prepping athletes for post-Olympic blues and other challenges when they leave Tokyo.

Besides the pressure to be the best in the world at their sport, besides the global pandemic, there's also the fact that there are no spectators allowed to watch the Tokyo Olympics in person. There are no family members to hug after they win, no friends or fans to cheering on from the stands.

Fans from around the world have been recording videos, TikTok and Instagram messages to the athletes. During the competitions, fan videos are shown on the big screens in the otherwise empty stands.

After their events, the athletes can step up to cameras to greet them online. The IOC says all these interactions have been wildly popular, especially in India, the U.S. and Japan.

But officials acknowledge it's just not the same as having those cheering fans at the Olympics.