By Zac Cornell
U.S. Gymnastics superstar Simone Biles, who shocked the world when she withdrew from numerous competitions at the Tokyo Summer Olympics citing mental health issues, publicly praised tennis champion Naomi Osaka for her support and leadership in drawing attention to the subject of mental health. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Biles revealed that Osaka reached out to her and was “sweet and supportive” during the Olympics. Biles commended Osaka for making mental health a public topic saying, “She is speaking up about mental health, and I think it is really important that athletes put their mental health first. Because, at the end of the day, that is what is going to determine how well we go out there and compete in whatever sport that is.” Prioritizing mental health is something that is gaining more attention around the world, particularly during the pandemic, and Biles thinks that the issue is important for athletes as well as the general public. She told Entertainment Tonight, “I think now that it is a leading topic of conversation, it is really helpful, because at the end of the day, we are athletes and it is our craft, but we are human too.”
Four time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka became one of the leading voices in the sports world about mental health when she opted to drop out of the French Open in July 2021 in order to prioritize her mental health instead of participating in mandatory player press conferences, which she said caused her anxiety and psychological harm. She has since become a strong advocate for mental health in the sports world, with many celebrities and fellow athletes joining her in rallying around the issue. She wrote an open letter about the topic for Time magazine.
Biles, the most decorated gymnast ever, ultimately secured a bronze medal for the balance beam at the Tokyo Olympics after suffering from a case of “twisties,” a mental phenomenon where gymnasts get disoriented while twisting in the air and lose a sense of where they are. The condition commonly occurs when gymnasts are under pressure, and suffering from it makes it dangerous to perform twists and flips as it can potentially lead to life-threatening injuries. Biles has referenced Covid restrictions preventing family members from coming to the Olympics and lingering trauma from her sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar as some contributing factors to her mental struggles in Tokyo.
On September 15th, Biles and other gymnasts testified at a Senate hearing about the failures of the system to protect them from Nassar, who has since been found guilty and is serving a life in prison for his sexual abuse of Biles and hundreds of her fellow teammates. The gymnasts who testified hold the FBI, USA Gymnastics, and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee accountable for the ongoing abuse by Nassar, and want changes made to the current system to prevent any future sexual abuse. Biles told the Judiciary committee that federal law enforcement and gymnastics officials turned a “blind eye” to the abuse. The FBI admits to delays and mishandling of the case with FBI Director Christopher Wray saying he was “deeply and profoundly sorry” for the delays in Nassar’s prosecution and the resulting additional pain and suffering.