IAN HERBERT: It’s tragic that Simone Biles feels that her needs are LAST on the list but don’t let her Olympics withdrawal be dressed up as something to celebrate
The mask Simone Biles wore as she headed through the back corridors of the Ariake Gymnastics Centre here — pausing at one excruciating moment to allow the Russians with their gold medals to move along — made it impossible to tell if there was pain behind her eyes.
On a superficial level, Biles seemed remarkably secure in the mixed zone for someone who had walked out of one of the biggest nights of her life. Only once in her 13 minutes of talk was there a crack in her voice, when she said this was supposed to be an Olympics for her and that ‘it hurts my heart’.
Her words and decision are liberating for young performers pushed to the brink by over-zealous coaches or parents and who long to say: ‘No more.’
Simone Biles pulled out of her individual final at the Olympics to focus on her mental health
But don’t let Biles’ departure from the team and individual all-around finals, which was announced on Wednesday, be dressed up as something to celebrate. At 24, she’s been driven to a decision that will remain with her for all her days.
There’s an assumption that Biles has the wisdom of the ages simply because she happens to somersault like no one else. But there was a vulnerability in the way she spoke — desperately trying to frame a silver medal as a triumph. Biles said that in these Olympics she was performing for her coaches, her family, her team-mates — and then herself.
That mixed-zone scene revealed how Biles carries, competes for and speaks for the USA team in a way that is not conducive to good health. There did not appear to be anyone from the USA camp facilitating the encounter between Biles and the press.
It took a member of the Olympics volunteer team to draw the questions to a close.
From the arena came more evidence that this event does not promote wellbeing. No sooner had one of the young women completed a performance than the camera crews were up close, zoning in.
At just 24, Biles has been driven to the decision that will remain with her for all her days
Some will counter that the environment has been like this for years — but is it appropriate for an age when we say we understand child protection? It was grotesque.
The same scene played out after a flawed Biles floor display on Sunday. Flushed, she was fanning herself when the cameraman loomed. She hastily reassumed her public face, blowing a kiss towards the seating area.
That was the night USA performance director Tom Forster name-checked Biles as one whose display had been flawed. The same Biles who had been finding her experience claustrophobic and suffocating. Well, that will have helped!
The US was on Thursday consumed with the question of when Biles might return.
She will make a decision on next week’s individual event finals in the coming days. The answer could be ‘never’.
But the focus will build into a white heat which only makes it tougher for her.
It will be the same for Naomi Osaka concerning the defence of her US Open tennis title. The debate becomes contentious when we ask what level of pressure an athlete might be expected to endure. Because there must and will be some. No one ever said that Olympic gold was ‘fun’ — the word Biles used.
‘Fun’ is a benign, controllable state. Winning an Olympic medal entails travelling through pressure, trauma and quite possibly distress to the blissful high ground of success.
There is nothing to celebrate after Biles’ decision to withdraw, it’s nothing less than a tragedy
Just ask British gymnast Alice Kinsella, so devastated by a beam fall in Sunday’s qualifiers that you wondered if she was capable of competing in the final. She’s an Olympic bronze medallist today.
Biles’ actions may precipitate an end to the empty talk about protecting our athletes and the beginning of greater thought from all those of us whose paths intersect with theirs.
But in a hotel room in Tokyo, when the noise abated and the lights dimmed late on Tuesday, Biles was left alone with her thoughts. There is nothing to celebrate here. It is nothing less than a tragedy.