Simone Biles will leave more than her genius behind when she stops for good. Walking out of the women’s gymnastics team final for “mental health” reasons must have been as hard as one of her astounding routines. We already knew she had transformed her own sport. Now she has changed the whole of sport as well.
If it’s making you unhappy, stop doing it, is the message many professional sportsmen and women will take from Biles’ decision to give way to a team-mate for her own good and that of the US Team. Some won’t walk away. Some won’t be able to, for financial or other reasons. Yet Biles has shown it’s possible even for a megastar to treat mental health the way you would a physical injury. It’s no exaggeration to say that sport - especially perhaps for female athletes - will never be the same again.
Under the old code, household names and billboard stars aren’t meant to step out in the middle of a competition. Sticking it out and fighting off the kind of “demons” Bile referred to was almost a moral duty. It flew in the face of what we know about pressure in elite sport.
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First, the Olympic flame was lit by a woman, Naomi Osaka, who disclosed a recent history of depression and anxiety after withdrawing from media duties on the tennis circuit. Then, the biggest star of the Tokyo Olympics - the greatest gymnast of our age - decided she couldn’t go on when heart and mind were telling her not to. It was selfless yet also self-protecting. When the decision was made she came back out to support her team-mates. This only deepened the sense that something seismic had taken place - and that Biles, despite her unhappiness, was still in command of her fate.
What she said at a subsequent press conference will be discussed and dissected around the world. It went to the heart of top-level sport and what it is to be human in a business where it’s hard to become a champion and even harder to stay on a throne.
"We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do,” Biles said.
"I don't trust myself as much any more. Maybe it's getting older. There were a couple of days when everybody tweets you and you feel the weight of the world.
"We're not just athletes. We're people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back.

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"I didn't want to go out and do something stupid and get hurt. I feel like a lot of athletes speaking up has really helped.
"It's so big, it's the Olympic Games. At the end of the day we don't want to be carried out of there on a stretcher.”
This wasn’t a sudden shift towards self-preservation. Some of her performances in Tokyo had been unusually imprecise. Her vault score was an Olympic (for her) low of 13.766. Her social media feeds were peppered with a kind of melancholic trepidation. On Instagram for example she talked of having “the weight of the world on my shoulders.”
An objection of endless fascination, and a transcendent talent, Biles has become global public property for the 17 days of the Olympics. In her prime, it must feel as if she has her sport on a string. On bad days, when the scores slip, she knows the world is watching, expecting to be entertained, demanding to know why she has dipped below perfection.
It is, of course, essential to remember that Biles was one of the gymnasts abused by former team doctor Larry Nassar, who is now serving a life sentence for his crimes.
“I feel like, if I have kids, I’ll probably enrol them [in gymnastics], in spite of the horror stuff that happened to me, because I know how much joy the sport has brought me," Biles reflected in 2019, once again speaking about her terrible experiences, adding: "I go to therapy...because there were times when I didn’t want to set foot in a gym. But am I going to let that keep me from my passion, and the goals that I still have? It’s just another bump you have to get over.”
But this is bigger than the struggles of a single maestro. Biles is saying it’s OK to stop, to say ‘no more.’ She may or may not return for the five individual finals she has reached. But the statement is there forever. Mental health matters more than winning. Nobody should pretend it will be easy for world sport to let go of one of its oldest principles (the soldiering-on idea). But Biles has helped us understand what it’s really like out there, and why the demands of sport must come with limits.
These unusual Olympic Games have taken another dramatic turn away from the norm. We’ll always cherish what Biles has been as a gymnast. Many will now think of her as a gold medallist too in healthy honesty, a game-changer on the uneven bars of life.
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