On Tuesday, July 27, defending American Olympic champion Simone Biles withdrew from the Artistic Gymnastics Women’s Team Final in Tokyo, according to an official statement from USA Gymnastics. On Tuesday, the world tuned in as she competed in vault and failed to stick the landing, receiving one of the lowest scores among her competitors. After the competition, Biles was seen being evaluated by Team USA trainers. The gymnast is now withdrawing from the remainder of the final due to a “medical issue.”
Following this announcement, spectators are left to wonder why Biles, the greatest gymnast in the world, is leaving the competition. With little information apart from a “medical issue,” — although there have been reports of Biles dealing with a nagging ankle injury ahead of the Games — Biles’ coach allegedly wrote to NBC after Biles’ exit, “Physically she is fine. But she is done for the night.” The question of whether Biles is withdrawing due to a possible injury or mental health concerns has led to an outpouring of concern from supporters on social media.
This isn’t the first time a well-known, highly-respected young female athlete has made international headlines for withdrawing from a major competition. Tennis star Naomi Osaka made waves earlier this summer with her decision to withdraw from the French Open and decline press interviews after other matches, citing the need to prioritize her mental health. The champion has been open about the pressure of being in the spotlight, and her decision to open up about her mental health was a powerful display of showing young women that it’s okay to walk away.
Despite Osaka’s decision receiving widespread praise, she has also been heavily criticized, including during a recent tiff with American journalist Megyn Kelly, who criticized Osaka on Twitter for appearing on a magazine cover despite having declined press earlier this year (as if the two cannot coexist). This is a frustrating reminder of how the world places unrealistic standards on young women athletes, expecting them to perform well, play by the rules, and show up when we need them. For many young women in the spotlight like Osaka and Biles, walking away from competition means that others will likely question their mental toughness, strength, and even doubt their professional ability — despite it being perfectly healthy to walk away.
When Jamaican gymnast Danusia Francis learned that she had injured her left knee, the 27-year-old competitor knew her Olympic Games would soon be over. However, on July 25, she touched the world by approaching the uneven bars and completing an 11-second routine followed by a graceful dismount, accomplished smile, and endearing goodbye wave to the audience. She finished in the uneven bars with a score of 3.003 and a 6.5 point penalty — but she accomplished her Olympic dream nonetheless, and knew when it was time to walk away.
For young women, taking a step back is not always an easy feat, especially for the most accomplished athletes in the world who are constantly being asked to show up and perform their best. And while the story is still developing, young women everywhere are taking note — you can be the most decorated athlete in the world, and still, it is okay to not be okay, and it is okay to walk away, regardless of how other people may perceive your decisions.
As we continue to witness Olympians — especially young women athletes — compete on the world’s stage, we need to remember that they are human, too. While they may wear an American flag on their uniforms, these world-class champions owe us nothing, and if it’s time for them to walk away — whether for mental health reasons or otherwise — it’s time to let them.
Following her vault performance, Biles immediately hugged her teammates and said, “I’m sorry. I love you guys, but you’re going to be just fine.” After withdrawing, Biles spent the day enthusiastically cheering on her teammates, offering encouragement and reportedly “screaming” in support during their routines. While the nature of Biles’ exit is unclear, and we have yet to hear whether or not she will compete in Thursday’s individual all-around competition, Biles has demonstrated, once again, that she is truly one of the greatest athletes of all time — and a champion from whom we should all take notes. Regardless of the reason behind her decision to walk away from the competition, withdrawing in itself is an act of bravery.