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27 December 2021

S is for Simone Biles: When great athletes prioritised their mental health over the pressure to perform

From the Goat of women's gymnastics to Britain's new tennis prodigy Emma Raducanu, sports stars protected their wellbeing in 2021.

By Sarah Manavis

The term “Goat” (greatest of all time) is thrown around with abandon these days – a title regularly bestowed upon anyone who is good, or maybe the best for a little while.

But let’s be clear: when we talk about the Goat in women’s gymnastics, we mean Simone Biles, and here it is not an exaggeration. 

The American gymnast has broken world records before, but 2021 was something else. Biles became the first woman in history to complete a Yurchenko double pike – the “ultra dangerous” move was performed in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics.

The achievement was wild enough to make front page news all over the world, despite it being at a comparatively minor event, the US Classic. (Rather than being met with a reaction worthy of a feat so historic, Biles was penalised for the move by the judges, whose scoring system could not accommodate something so off-the-charts). 

It came as a surprise, then, when the world’s best gymnast went to the vault at the Olympics in July and suddenly couldn’t perform the move she’d always planned. Instead, Biles completed a much simpler vault than expected and immediately withdrew from the competition citing mental health issues.

In September, she told the Cut: “I should have quit way before Tokyo… My perspective has never changed so quickly from wanting to be on a podium to wanting to be able to go home, by myself, without any crutches.” 

Biles isn’t alone in prioritising herself over her sport. Many other famous female athletes spoke openly about their mental health this year and actively took steps to protect it, at the cost of potential titles.

This shift was perhaps most tangible in tennis: Naomi Osaka and now British number one Emma Raducanu both spoke about their mental health before dropping out of tournaments. Raducanu, before her exceptional win at the US Open, dropped out of Wimbledon due to breathing difficulties, leading to conversations about performance anxiety. Osaka wrote an essay for Time magazine headlined “It’s OK Not To Be OK”, after announcing she would be taking an indefinite break from tennis to focus on her wellbeing. 

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This has been an astonishing year for openness and honesty about a truth that has long been unspoken among athletes. It is seductive to think this is pure progress, but the reaction hasn’t always been positive. Both Biles and Osaka received criticism for their decisions, and Raducanu, aged just 18 at the time, was the target of outrage for her Wimbledon drop-out.

The sporting world is at the beginning of a long journey: its athletes are trying to uphold not only their own hopes and dreams but also those of millions of others.

Find the other entries in the New Statesman A-Z of 2021 here.

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