I always thought the Olympics was supposed to be about competing, and winning, for your country. As an American, the Olympic Games always felt like a unique opportunity to utterly defeat other countries and prove, again and again, that the USA is the greatest country on earth, and other countries suck.
Apparently, things have changed. For some U.S. athletes, the Olympics has become all about them.
Simone Biles, the best gymnast in the world and the erstwhile star of Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics, abruptly quit on Tuesday after botching a vault. Her unexpected withdrawal from the women’s team gymnastics final left her teammates in the lurch. Some of them had not planned to compete Tuesday, and they ended up losing the gold to Russia — Russia!
At a press conference afterward, Biles cited vague mental health concerns as her reason for pulling out. “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” she said, kicking off a flurry of blue-check tweets about how it’s so important for athletes to take care of their mental health.
Then Biles said this: “This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself when I came in — and I felt like I was still doing it for other people.”
Simone Biles: ‘I feel like I’m also not having as much fun – and this Olympic Games I wanted it to be for myself and it felt like I was still doing for other people – and that hurts my heart that doing what I love has been taken away from me.’
— Ian Herbert (@ianherbs) July 27, 2021
Well, you were supposed to being doing for other people. Specifically, you were supposed to be doing it for your country, for all Americans, not for yourself — or at least not only for yourself.
In fairness, the blame here shouldn’t rest solely on Biles. We as a society have begun conflating mental health and mental toughness, or grit. Public figures are often rewarded for taking care of their “mental health,” even in the absence of any kind of mental illness.
Biles doesn’t suffer from a specific mental illness, at least not that we know of or that’s ever manifested itself before. What she experienced wasn’t that, it was something more common among professional athletes: she got psyched out. She wasn’t mentally tough when she needed to be.
That’s fine. It happens to LeBron James all the time (and when it does, you can tell; he stops trying and lets his team lose).
But instead of being ashamed of that, or apologizing to her teammates and her countrymen, Biles seemed to revel in taking care of her “mental health,” whatever that means.
Contrast this mealy-mouthed talk about mental health from Team USA to what Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova said after her floor routine sealed the gold for Russia: “I knew that it was depending on me, and I was feeling overwhelming happiness and I knew I did it. I knew I had done my job.”
She knew she did her job. That’s the Olympic spirit.
We Americans know that spirit well. When Kerri Strug won the gold for Team USA at the 1996 Olympics, vaulting on two torn ligaments in her ankle in one of the most memorable Olympic moments ever, she later said she did it for her team, her country, and herself. She knew that in order for her team to win, she had to pull it together, mentally and physically, and do the vault.
In 1996 Kerri Strug went back out on the mats for the finals & had a spectacular performance despite a severely injured ankle.
She did it because it was the only way Team USA had a chance at Gold.
Due to her effort, Team USA won Gold. Amazing grit.
The great ones find a way. pic.twitter.com/Rg6Mv3z6Gg
— Chris Buskirk (@thechrisbuskirk) July 27, 2021
That she would become a national hero for her grit, she later told a reporter, just seemed, in her words, “weird.” “To me, it was part of my job to do that vault.”
Meanwhile, Team USA announced that Wednesday would be a “mental rest day” ahead of the all-around women’s gymnastics final on Thursday, the individual competition.
No word yet on whether Biles’s “mental health” will be recovered enough by then for her to compete.