How much Simone Biles knows about British sport isn’t known. She will be aware that Adam Peaty treats a swimming pool the way a torpedo handles an ocean, but she may not know Ben Stokes is English cricket’s No 1 warrior.
A table for three with Biles, Stokes and Peaty would be riveting. A gymnast, cricketer and swimmer wouldn’t swap many notes on the technical aspects of their trade but they have a few things in common. One: world-class talent and profile. Two: membership of a new elite club that argues for self-preservation over pleasing others.
Peaty and Stokes are stepping back from their brilliant deeds: Stokes, for reasons to do with “mental wellbeing” and Peaty perhaps more because he’s exhausted and needs a break from a punishing routine. But Biles, 24, is walking back into the spotlight - at 9.50am London time on Tuesday - for a possible valediction in gymnastics, though she says she may compete in Paris in 2024. Biles had dropped out of four finals but returns for the last competition on her roster.
‘I should have quit way before Tokyo’ – Biles on mental health and ‘twisties’
There are two ways of seeing this approaching Olympic drama, which will grip the world. Either she’s displaying colossal courage in fighting the “twisties’ and her mental health difficulties - fighting for one last gold out of sheer defiance - or victory is already hers. To many, calling a halt was the act of a champion far beyond sport, and whatever happens in the women’s balance beam final is fine either way (provided she doesn’t hurt herself), because the pressure is now off.
Contestant No 392 in the beam final confirmed her ‘comeback’ as the USA’s Jade Carey was winning the women’s floor gold Biles captured in Rio in 2016. It was the clearest evidence gymnastics is already moving on without her. Sport always does. Much as the Masters still took place when Tiger Woods pulled out, so a new order forms in gymnastics.
Should Biles overcome her aerial disorientation and win gold on the beam you can scrap the previous sentence. A great resilience narrative will be typed in the Ariake Gymnastics Centre. But that only accentuates the complexity of sport’s mental health dilemma. What are we saying: it’s good to walk away, or it’s heroic to fight your way back to the top? Well, both can be true, except that those who leave and stay away can’t be considered less worthy of respect.
'I didn't want to cost the team a medal' - Biles explains why she pulled out of team event
Peaty has been upset by some of the reactions to the news that will miss the International Swimming League (ISL) in September to take a month out of the water and freshen up for the World and European Championships. He said at the time: “You’re seeing it in all sports now. You’re seeing it with Simone Biles. You’re seeing it with Ben Stokes. Mental health matters and it is about getting the balance right at that elite level.”
A day or so later he tweeted: “Reading some of the comments in response to this is why we have such a stigma around mental wellbeing in sport. It isn’t a normal job. There is a huge amount of pressure. Money does not buy happiness.”
Even more than Peaty, Stokes conforms to traditional ideas about power, aggression, zeal, spirit, indomitability. His match-winning performance in the 2019 cricket World Cup final against New Zealand at Lord’s was seminal, transcendent. But his inscrutability conceals a lot below the surface. The break he’s taking from cricket could have been framed around his finger injury. Instead he made it mainly about his mind.
Biles is in ‘good company’ here. Even if social media self-publicists and macho brutes think they can tell Biles to get back on the horse, floor or bars, Peaty and Stokes are harder for the wannabe tough guys to denounce. Each struggle is equally valid. Each raises mental health above the level of winning, losing, and the colour of your medal. Notice, too, that this discussion hasn’t yet been extended to people who finish last - the anonymous Olympic also-rans - though it could and will be.
The USA Gymnastics announcement was very lights, camera action! “We are so excited to confirm that you will see two U.S. athletes in the balance beam final tomorrow - Suni Lee AND Simone Biles!! Can’t wait to watch you both!”
'Disastrous!' - Biles has nightmare vault before shock withdrawal
In previous eras, Biles would have been cast as a haunted celeb, forced into a news formula, but this time the curiosity has mostly not been morbid. It helps that she turned up at the gymnastics every day to support her team and has explained in detail a syndrome that afflicts many in her sport. “Literally can not tell up from down,” she wrote on Instagram. “It’s the craziest feeling ever. Not having an inch of control over your body.”
If the “twisties” are the result of deeper emotional distress, her reappearance will presumably be more challenging. The trick for the rest of us is not to see it as a binary struggle between winning a medal on the beam or bowing out defeated. She’s nobody’s victim. She’s a mortal genius, with human susceptibilities, like everyone.
Her return, if she goes through with it, does strike a note of reassurance. It will be good to see her back out there, if it brings her pleasure, because she’s a maestro. Yet she has so much glory on her CV already - four Olympic golds, six medals in all - she could survive without more.
As Albert Camus said: “Sometimes, carrying on, just carrying on, is the superhuman achievement.” But we ought to know by now, that’s not always possible.
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