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Simone Biles’ breakdown was imminent, partly triggered by her own federation

The gymnast had spoken about mental health last year after the Olympics delay and the US gymnastics association’s alleged mishandling of the Larry Nassar sex abuse case.

July 29, 2021 / 05:07 PM IST
US gymnast Simone Biles (centre) talks to teammate Alec Yoder as they watch the artistic gymnastic men's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, on Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Tokyo. When the Games were postponed last year, Biles spoke up about the mental strain of going to the gym 'day-in, day-out' for several more months. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

US gymnast Simone Biles (centre) talks to teammate Alec Yoder as they watch the artistic gymnastic men's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, on Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Tokyo. When the Games were postponed last year, Biles spoke up about the mental strain of going to the gym 'day-in, day-out' for several more months. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Mental health problems often have roots in past incidents. Simone Biles, the US gymnastics star who withdrew from the Olympics citing mental health, had hinted at her stresses last year, well before the Tokyo Games.

Compromised mental health can be caused by a mix of various negative emotions, including anger. The postponement of the Olympics, combined with USA Gymnastics (USAG) allegedly turning a blind eye to sexual abuse of its athletes, including Biles, left her feeling drained and furious. The events in Tokyo were a boiling over of built-up discontent.

In an interview to The Washington Post in 2020, Biles lamented having to wait another year for the Games. The frustration was greater for her because she was looking forward to ending her career and starting a new life.

“It’s just the mental strain of going in the gym day-in day-out, putting in that work going toward that goal,” Biles said. “I feel right now we’re kind of emptying our gas tank. I was so ready to have that experience in three months; now it’s pushed back another 15 months. That takes a toll on your mind.”

Dealing with the USAG for another year was also an unpleasant prospect. The organization, Biles has said, did not do enough to stop rampant sexual abuse of gymnasts by their coaches or staff. Eventually, Larry Nassar, the former USAG doctor, was accused of sexually abusing more than 140 women and girls. He also consumed child pornography. In 2017, Nassar was convicted and is serving over 100 years in jail.

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But such is the trauma Nassar caused that it will linger long within his victims, along with anger at USAG for not heeding complaints about him. Biles’ compatriot McKayla Maroney even filed a lawsuit against USAG for paying her hush money to not speak about her experiences.

In 2018, Biles tweeted, “For too long I’ve asked myself, ‘Was I too naive? was it my fault?’ I now know the answer to those questions. No. No, it was not my fault. No, I will not and should not carry the guilt that belongs to Larry Nassar, USAG, and others.”

About having to prolong her association with the USAG, Biles said, “It’s almost as if I feel like, since I have another year, something else is going to go wrong. Or (USAG) is going to do something wrong again.”

Biles attained stardom at the Rio Games in 2016, winning four gold medals. In addition, she won 19 World Championship golds. But gymnastics careers are very short, especially for women. Their bodies are best suited for some of the sport’s routines when they are in their teens. Biles, 24 this year, successful and disillusioned with the establishment, planned to bow out after the 2020 Games. To her credit, she added even more dangerous moves to her quiver in a bid to go out with a flourish. But the pandemic disrupted her plans.

“I was ready to see who I was as a person rather than as an athlete,” Biles said. “What other adventures I wanted to take on. To see what my other skill sets were.”

She did not sign off as she hoped to in Tokyo. Biles has been praised for prioritizing her well-being. She has been criticized for participating despite knowing she was not in the best shape. There is some validity to both sides of the argument. It is human to not always know what to do, and then fall between two stools, even if you are a great gymnast.

Read more: Healing Space | Did Naomi Osaka pave the way for Simone Biles?
Akshay Sawai
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