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How Olympic Pressure Can Change an Athlete

After Simone Biles's withdrawal, Sunisa Lee won gold in Tokyo—a well-deserved medal that revealed a lot about the overall Olympic culture, particularly in these pandemic Games.

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TOKYO — Sunisa Lee won Simone Biles’s gold medal here Thursday. She did it because Biles exited the stage, but also because of when Biles exited the stage—just two days earlier, after years of unrelenting hype. Lee said that when Biles withdrew, citing mental health concerns, “I just had to switch gears, because we were coming in to compete for second place.” She had two days to think about it, instead of five years. That was a gift from Biles.

Lee is an amazingly skilled 18-year-old from Minnesota who got a teaspoon of pre-Olympic publicity. It was all Simone, what Simone could do, what Simone wasn’t allowed to do because she is too much better than everyone else, what Simone means to America … Simone, Simone, Simone. First name, only name.

Lee earned her gold medal in the individual all-around. It goes to the best gymnast competing that night, and that was Lee. But Lee knows as well as anybody that at her best, Biles would have won this easily.

The night, then, was not just about Suni Lee. It was about a culture that takes young Olympians and deforms them to the point where they cannot even recognize themselves.

U.S. gymnast Suni Lee wins gold in the individual all-around event at Tokyo Olympics

Biles could have done everything Lee did Thursday, but she could have said very little of what Lee said. Twice, Lee called her win “surreal.” She said, “I just felt like I could never be here, ever. Like, it doesn’t even feel like real life.” Lee did the craziest thing here: She had fun.

Maybe Biles could have performed, but could she have had fun doing it? Most of the seats on the wooden benches in the Ariake Gymnastics Center were empty. There was no crowd to win over. That changes the dynamics of any sporting event, and it might help explain why Biles stepped away.

There are usually two Olympics: The one you watch on NBC, and the one that unfolds in person. The NBC Olympics are a vehicle for inspirational storytelling. The actual Olympics feature human beings competing in athletic events. In person the Olympics can feel startlingly underproduced. Most venues are not luxurious. The stands are not dotted with celebrities, like a Lakers game; they are filled with people who just love watching quirky sports at the Olympics.

When Biles arrived here, she was supposed to be the star of the show. But the problem with the Tokyo Olympics is that they’re all show. There are no families here, except for the rare sibling who is also competing or parent who is coaching or otherwise working here. There are no fans at events in Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures.

Biles was saddled with Olympic expectations not seen since Michael Phelps at the 2008 Olympics: Carry the torch for NBC, and perform better than anybody in your sport ever has. With no fans or family here, there was nobody to distract her from those expectations. She couldn’t just focus on winning the room, because the room was mostly empty. There was nothing and nobody to stand between Biles and the “twisties”—a gymnastic version of the yips.

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The lack of fans is a huge story at these Games. It is surely affecting the competition in ways we don’t even see. Think of what your last 18 months have been like—the social isolation, too little human interaction, too much time to think. Now imagine that under Olympic pressure.

Like players in the NBA bubble last year, Olympians can try to lock in on their work. But that’s hard to maintain. Katie Ledecky tried to program her every move this week, from meals to bus rides to swims, but as soon as she lost one event on her schedule—the medal ceremony for the 200 free, which fell off because she finished fifth—it rattled her. She won the next race but spent the final strokes thinking about her grandparents. She was crying afterward. U.S. swimming star Caeleb Dressel said earlier this week, “I was turning the pressure into stress.” He also bawled when he won individual gold.

Olympic pressure is unlike most of the pressure we associate with big-time sports, because it isn’t really about winning. Olympians have a short window to define themselves to the world. For all the expectations LeBron James faced, he always knew he would have another shot the next year—and that he had 82 regular-season games and a bunch more in the playoffs to show who he is. Olympians don’t have that chance. Most Americans don’t pay much attention to them in non-Olympic years.

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We have seen Olympic pressure rattle the best in the world for decades—either at trials or the Games themselves. We saw it with Dan Jansen, Dan O’Brien, Sasha Cohen and Phelps, though some obviously thrived, anyway. But we are seeing it more now. Every move is scrutinized. Athletes are expected to overshare; Dressel made it a point not to engage in social media this week so he wasn’t distracted.

The Olympics always have an unparalleled ratio of hype to competition. Add the pandemic and COVID-19 protocols, and take away loved ones, and what do you have? The best athletes in the world feeling like the whole world is staring at them on Zoom.

These Olympics felt different from the start. With no fans, the opening ceremony felt like a rehearsal, and many U.S. athletes skipped it. Track athletes who would normally get here quite early will arrive much closer to competition. There are no chances to see Tokyo, to go to other events, or to hug a mom after a win. There is no outside support and very little opportunity for joy. There is only time to think.

It’s hard for most athletes. It had to be especially tough for Biles. At some point in the last five years, we stopped looking at Biles as a gymnast and started viewing her as her own sport. As Lee’s coach, Jess Graba, said, “Too much of the conversation is on one person.”

Looking back, that conversation ruined Biles’s Olympics before they began. It also allowed Lee to train for this with the quaint and much less stressful goal of just trying to do her best.

Lee said when she talked to her parents on the phone this week, they said, “In their hearts, I was already a winner.” Now she is a winner in the Olympic record book, too—and, most dangerously, in America’s hearts. Suni Lee deserves all of the credit for what she did Thursday night. She deserves only a fraction of what is coming next. 

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