Forget the critics - Superhuman Simone Biles should be commended for showing the strength in vulnerability

We should be praising our sports stars for speaking out on mental health issues, not chastising them.
Simone Biles. (Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)Simone Biles. (Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)
Simone Biles. (Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)

Every time the Olympics roll around, somebody on Twitter floats the idea of putting an average, run of the mill person off the street in each event to contextualise just how incredibly talented these superhuman competitors truly are.

For what it’s worth, it’s a superb pipe dream.

The point, of course, is that it would be quite the sobering blow to us mere mortals to see one of our own lapped in the 800m, but perhaps more pressingly it would go a long way towards teaching certain people about the mental fortitude required to perform in elite sporting arenas.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent days, a lot of stiff upper lip bravado from the usual suspects, about the inner toughness of professional athletes, and whether or not what they do applies enough pressure to constitute the kind of sensible, measured approach to their own mental wellbeing that several iconic figures are deciding to take.

Since last week, we’ve seen Ben Stokes announce his indefinite hiatus from cricket, heard human eel Adam Peaty’s intention to head off with his glittering collection of Olympic medals for some much needed downtime on terra firma, and had England international Tyrone Mings open up on his work with a psychologist in the build-up to the Three Lions’ Euro 2020 campaign.

Really though, it was the drama surrounding American gymnast Simone Biles that triggered this whole sorry conversation.

The 24-year-old is arguably the greatest athlete ever to grace her field. Her extraordinary proclivity for flipping and tumbling in various guises has afforded her the kind of transcendental superstardom that is rarely achieved by even the brightest lights of more popular sports.

Adam Peaty of Team Great Britain. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)Adam Peaty of Team Great Britain. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Adam Peaty of Team Great Britain. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

If we’re being honest, very few people religiously follow gymnastics, very few people understand its inner workings and minute details, but you’d have been hard pushed to find a casual fan who wasn’t aware of Biles going into Tokyo 2020. She is the Michael Jordan of the balance beam, Tony Hawk in a leotard.

And then, almost unbelievably, after struggling on her vault attempt, she dropped out of last week’s team competition after just one discipline.

Cue uproar and outrage from a baying mob of keyboard warriors who could barely flip a mattress, let alone themselves.

Biles’ cited reason for bowing out when she did was an unfortunate gymnastic phenomenon known as the “twisties”.

Grace McCallum, Simone Biles, and Jordan Chiles of Team United States. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)Grace McCallum, Simone Biles, and Jordan Chiles of Team United States. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Grace McCallum, Simone Biles, and Jordan Chiles of Team United States. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Honestly, it sounds terrifying, a sort of disconnect between brain and body that usurps muscle memory and leaves an athlete at the behest of gravity and sheer damn luck. The Ohio native likened it to being lost in mid-air, unsure as to where you are, how many rotations you’ve performed, or when that fast-approaching mat beneath you is going to make crunching contact with your body.

To the reasonable ear, it sounds like trying to do a Rubik’s cube in a washing machine blindfolded, all while said machine is being tossed over Niagara Falls. In short, this is not something to be trifled with.

But don’t let that stop a barrage of ignorant, wildly unqualified armchair pundits from sticking their oar in where it’s not wanted. These are the sort of people who would probably crumble under the pressure of packing their bags at the Aldi checkouts with a queue of people waiting behind them, and yet they have the gall to tell a young woman performing death-defying stunts in front of the entire world that she’s too soft.

And of course, leading the charge on Biles is a man who knows a thing or two about regurgitating bile himself and passing it off as “journalism”. Said decency sponge is nothing more than an attention vacuum, and for that reason alone he shall remain nameless in this article, but let’s just say that if he practised the kind of granite constitution that he preaches, perhaps he wouldn’t have to run away from reasonable debates with weathermen.

He who shall not be named, Lord Trolldemort if you will, just can’t help himself – he’s like a truffle hog grunting and snuffling his way through the undergrowth for a morsel of contrarianism.

But he is also a shining example of exactly why the likes of Biles – along with Stokes, Peaty, Mings, and countless others – are doing the right thing by speaking out on their mental health.

Rightly or wrongly, we idolise sports stars. Whether they see it as a perk or a burden, these Herculean figures are granted a platform and a level of scrutiny that far outstrips the fact that they are simply good at running, or swimming, or jumping – or whatever it may be.

As a result, people look to them for reassurance and guidance, and if somebody struggling with their own mental health can see a towering presence like Biles and realise that even she needs to cut herself some slack and prioritise her own wellbeing every once in a while, perhaps they can afford themselves the same kindness. If the gymnast has taught us anything this week, it’s that there is strength in vulnerability.

It’s a lesson that a lot of onlookers would do well to heed, for themselves and for those around them.

In some quarters, there seems to be this perverse, regressive train of thought that people, and society writ large, are somehow getting softer because of their willingness to frankly address their internal struggles, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

This is what we as humans are supposed to do – we learn, we grow, we improve. You get the distinct impression that if it was up to some of Biles’ antiquated critics we’d still be burning apparent witches at the stake and chastising left-handed people for devil worship. We have to keep progressing, and the sooner people realise that mental health is physical health, the better.

The other bizarre strand of argument comes from those who seem to think that just because they’ve bottled up everything deep down inside, everybody else should too – but it’s a ludicrous piece of logic.

If you’ve genuinely suffered with mental health issues yourself, you shouldn’t be more scathing when somebody speaks out, you should be more understanding, more empathetic. Suffering is not a competition, folks. People are allowed to feel sad, or anxious, and they’re allowed to express those emotions – it doesn’t matter who they are.

Let’s not forget that in the case of Olympians and international footballers, we’re talking about actual human beings here, not performing monkeys wheeled out purely for your entertainment while you sit at home working on that dent in your sofa cushion and spilling Dorito crumbs down yourself.

When all is said and done, how hard is it to be kind?

It was announced on Monday that Biles will, against all expectations, compete in the final of the balance beam tomorrow. What a story it would be if she were to triumph and take home a gold medal.

But you know what, even if she doesn’t, even if she fails to make the podium or fluffs her routine entirely, even if she gets out there and decides that she doesn’t want to compete at all, that’s absolutely fine because as much as we love it, sport will never be as important as a person’s mental health.