American gymnast Simone Biles will not defend her Olympic gold medal in the individual all-around competition to focus on her mental health, USA Gymnastics confirmed on Wednesday.
Biles, 24, had pulled out of the team competition a day earlier citing mental health concerns. She had been aiming to become the first woman in more than 50 years to retain an all-around title, but that will now not happen.
“After further medical evaluation, Simone Biles has withdrawn from the final individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games, in order to focus on her mental health,” USA Gymnastics wrote in a statement.
“Simone will continue to be evaluated daily to determine whether or not to participate in next week’s individual event finals.
“We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being. Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.”
Four-time Olympic champion Biles had admitted to being weighed down by the expectation of competing at the Games, writing on her Instagram page on Monday that the Olympics were “no joke.”
She looked out of sorts during the team competition on Tuesday, appearing to change her mind mid-vault as she posted a score of 13.766, her lowest-ever Olympic score in that area. She immediately left the competition floor and only returned to support her teammates.
“We have to protect our mind and body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,” Biles told reporters after her withdrawal from the team competition, in which the US finished second behind the Russian Olympic Committee.
Sports psychologist: ‘Call for help’
Markus Raab, a sports psychologist from the Germany Sports University in Cologne, told DW that the coronavirus pandemic would have adversely affected athletes’ preparations for the Games.
“The Olympics is always about winning, but the conditions changed quite a lot,” Raab said. “For Biles, there was quite a lot of media attention and very high expectation on her to win another round of medals.
“And then, there is the environment, like COVID and social distancing. These are not the pre-routines you normally do as an athlete under these conditions.
“You are not sure if this is really a stress symptom, burnout, or maybe depression. But if an athlete stops in a competition like the Olympics, I do believe this is a call for help.”
Team USA rallies behind Biles
“You’ve made us so proud,” said Sarah Hirshland, the head of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, before the news emerged of her withdrawal from the individual all-round event.
“We applaud your decision to prioritise your mental wellness over all else and offer you the full support and resources of our Team USA community as you navigate the journey ahead.”
American Michael Phelps, the former swimmer who picked up 23 gold medals during his career, said Biles’ decision “broke my heart.”
“I hope this is an eye-opening experience, I really do,” the 36-year-old said. “I hope this is an opportunity for us to jump on board, and to even blow this mental health thing even more wide open. It is so much bigger than we can ever imagine.”
Biles said that she had been inspired by Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from June’s French Open when she was battling mental health problems.
Osaka crashed out of the Tokyo Olympics event in the third round on Tuesday.
Featured image credit: Reuters