TOKYO — This is a new era in sports, and it might take some time for the fog to clear. Simone Biles, the best gymnast in the world by far, who looked like she could dominate the competition without thinking about it, pulled out of the Tokyo Olympics team final Tuesday. Naomi Osaka, probably the best tennis player in the world when she is on her game, gave up her chance to win two Grand Slam events this year to focus on her mental health.
These two are the two most obvious examples but far from the only ones. Kyrie Irving took a leave from a championship-quality Nets team this year for reasons he chose not to share.
It all seems unprecedented, like athletes can just walk away at any moment and have people applaud them for it. For people of a certain age, who are used to a certain ethos, it is jarring.
But we have seen athletes step away from competition for nonphysical reasons before. Some of the best athletes in history did it. Jim Brown. Michael Jordan. We think of Jordan as the ultimate athletic competitor, which he was, but look back at his first retirement now: His dad had been murdered, he felt a little lost, and at first he said he wanted to be more of a homebody, then he decided to play minor league baseball. That was a mental health break, even if we didn’t use that phrase much in the 1990s—especially to describe somebody as cold-blooded as Jordan.
We use the term mental health all the time now. There are surely people who feel we use it too much. To them, it sounds like an excuse, a Get Out of the Next Game card that athletes can use whenever they feel like it. How can fans be expected to care so much about the games if the participants don’t?
They care desperately, of course. If anything, the ones who step away usually obsess to the point of imbalance. It’s a battle a lot of us fight, especially those of us who are lucky enough to pursue our dreams. How do you care exactly the right amount? Where is that little slice of real estate, and how do you keep your brain there?
When Biles says, “It’s been really stressful, this Olympic Games,” remember that her Olympics did not begin when you tuned in to the gymnastics this week. They began before you ever heard her name. When Osaka says press conferences are not good for her mental health, remember that her media obligations do not end with the last question. They follow her wherever she goes.
We watch sports partly to see people do what we can’t. But we also watch to see people be who they are. What you have seen from Biles and Osaka this year was not necessarily them at their best but them at their truest.
Biles was raw and honest Tuesday night. Some of the over-the-top cheerleading for Biles and Osaka, particularly in the media, is performative: Look at how much I support them! Doesn’t that reflect well upon me? Well, sure we should support her. It’s more important to listen to her. Biles may have inspired thousands of people with her decision, but that isn’t why she made it. She did not sound like a hero. She sounded worn out. It happens to—quite literally—the best of us.
Will these kinds of big-event withdrawals become a trend? Who knows? Athletes will probably become more comfortable making decisions like the one Biles made Tuesday night—but they, and their support staff, will also learn more about how to manage their mental health proactively so they can still compete. That would have been Biles’s preference. What happened this week was probably more surprising to us than to her. She tried to steady herself for a few more days. That turned out to be more than she could manage.
It is important to remember that, while this outcome was the right one for Biles this week, it was one she would have preferred to avoid. This should be obvious, but the point can get lost.
“You usually don't hear me say things like that because I'll usually persevere and push through things, but not to cost this team a medal,” Biles said. “So they were like, ‘O.K., well if Simone says this, it is pretty serious.’ ”
Making sense of the world changing in real time is hard. But anybody who hoped to see the great Simone Biles perform for her country this week should remember: She wanted that so, so much.
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