Physical and mental health must stand on same footing

‘The body is a temple’ for Olympic athletes—why isn’t the mind?


Augie Hawk, Editorials Editor

In the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, American gymnast and four-time gold medal winner Simone Biles withdrew from four of her five individual Olympic events—individual all-around, vault, uneven bars, and floor finals—citing stress and the “twisties,” an intense loss of spatial awareness while performing.

Touted as one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, Biles was expected to repeat her 2016 Rio performance, and her announcement came as a shock to many. To some, she let her teammates and country down, forcing Team USA to quickly replace her with gymnasts below her caliber. Others deemed her decision an act of advocacy and courage, including many of her fellow Olympians and USA Gymnastics.

Biles’ sudden departure left Team USA scrambling to replace her. To that extent, Biles jeopardized the team’s standings. But if Biles had stayed, could she have still performed at a high caliber? The “twisties” certainly hindered her semi-final vault performance, and she explained afterward that her withdrawal was in part due to not wanting “to risk a medal for the team.”

Biles, like tennis star Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open for mental health reasons, emphasized that mental issues are as detrimental to athletes’ performances as physical injuries. Bringing that awareness to mainstream media is important for fans, as oftentimes they can only see and understand physical injuries, like a sprained ankle or broken arm.

Mental injuries, like a panic attack or “twisties,” are often less visible and require those suffering to speak out to receive help. Once Biles pulled out of her events, she met with a psychologist daily, who cleared her to perform on the beam.

Today, athletes determine for themselves whether to voice their mental struggles or continue competing. The decision to speak up can add undue stress to an already difficult situation, and athletes shouldn’t have to do it alone.

Mental toughness certainly plays a large role in handling the pressure of a crowd or performance, but when athletes have more serious issues, like a biological imbalance or recent trauma (such as Biles, who lost her aunt right before performing), medical experts need to provide proper support and decision making.

As fans, we must remember that athletes are humans, not machines programmed for our entertainment. Biles made the right decision for herself given the circumstances. If specialists in the field of mental health provide more support, athletes won’t have to deal with their mental struggles all by themselves.

Instead, just like they’re trained to take proper care of their bodies to perform at their best, athletes will learn how to take better care of their minds.

In the future, Olympic committees should prioritize athletes’ mental health during Olympic trials. Just like athletes are preemptively tested for their physical abilities, they should be evaluated psychologically, too, and if unexpected mental hindrances arise, they should be treated with the same level of respect as sudden physical injuries. Preceding the Games, the International Olympic Committee set guidelines and screenings for coaches and athletes to address mental health at a deeper level and treat athletes when necessary. As of now, however, only four mental health experts are serving on Team USA for the 613 athletes that compete. Important strides were made, but more must be done to bring mental health to the same level as physical health.