One day before she announced her withdrawal from multiple events at the Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of our era and probably any other, wrote about the feeling of bearing “the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.” For any elite athlete, this would be regarded as an admission—a confession even—of human vulnerability, a trait that is too often treated as anathema to athletic success. It would also turn out to be a bit of foreshadowing. When Biles later decided to step back from competition at the Summer Games, she cited the stress she was under, her struggle to deal with immense expectations, and the resulting need to attend to her mental health. “I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me,” her social media post had stated, “but damn sometimes it’s hard.”
Most of us will never be as good at anything as Biles is at gymnastics—and by “us,” I also refer to her fellow gymnasts. She is a 32-time Olympic and world medalist, the main attraction for the USA Gymnastics organization, and the namesake of no less than four moves. She is also a Black woman whose domination in a blindingly white sport has meant surpassing seemingly unattainable standards of perfection, reconfiguring them in her own image, and finding herself penalized by judges for putting too much air between her and other competitors. Biles was also contending with “the twisties,” the feeling that her body and brain weren’t syncing up, with serious injury a potential consequence; the lingering effects of the sexual abuse she suffered years earlier at the hands of former USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar; and a depression that had previously left her bedbound, because “sleeping was better than offing myself.” She spoke of her sense that, as the sole “remaining survivor” in the Olympics of Nassar’s abuse, she had to continue competing, for fear that USA Gymnastics “would’ve just brushed [the scandal] to the side.”
The cumulative weight of those issues would be staggering in any case, but for Black athletes, professionalism has always included never speaking about the toxic toll of racism. Black male athletes such as Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid have been effectively blackballed for silently protesting police violence; LeBron James has been repeatedly attacked for calling out racism. For Black women, the stakes can be even higher, because they earn less and often compete in less-established sports leagues. Biles has more recently discussed her own experiences with racism in a sport in which Black athletes are both tokenized and exceptionalized, noting that “every Black athlete” has “experienced it through their career, but we just have to keep going for those little ones looking up to us,” and stating the need to “represent Black and brown girls over the world.” Biles—who once checked herself out of a hospital emergency room with kidney stones and won a gold medal the next day—is keenly aware that audiences “think I’m superhuman,” which is less a compliment than a diminishment of personhood. Her decision to even briefly throw off the impossible burdens of representation and “Black excellence,” to send a message that she is already enough, will hopefully do as much to influence those little Black and brown girls as her performances on the beam.
If there is a sea change in the way mental health is understood in elite sports, it is being led by Biles and other Black women. Earlier this year, Naomi Osaka was fined $15,000 and threatened with suspension by Grand Slam officials for refusing to speak to the press. Osaka has acknowledged in interviews dating back to 2018 that she suffers from depression and has had to navigate anti-Blackness in the US and Japan. After pulling out of the French Open and Wimbledon, she wrote in an article that those penalties came merely because she wanted to “exercise self-care and preservation of my mental health.” “I stand by that,” she concluded. “Athletes are humans.”
For Black women athletes—whom audiences applaud when they win but quickly turn on when they speak up about the issues they face—the racism they confront may play a role in their struggles with mental health. It’s been heartening to see them start to talk about that connection. Simone Manuel, the first Black woman to win Olympic gold as an individual swimmer, was sidelined for weeks as a result of overtraining. Manuel was struggling not only with physical and performance difficulties but also depression. In July, she said that anti-Blackness added to the fatigue from the already severe regimen she maintains as an Olympic swimmer and acknowledged the difficulty of speaking about the problem when there are people who want her to “shut up and swim.” “This past year for the Black community has been brutal,” she told reporters. “[I]t’s not something that I could ignore. And it was just another factor that can influence you mentally in a draining way.”
Raven Saunders, a queer Black woman and star shot-putter who took home silver in Tokyo, has been forthcoming about the depression. She says her goal is “to show younger people that no matter how many boxes they try to fit you in, you can be you and you can accept it.” Anna Cockrell, an Olympic sprinter, has been frank about what competitors like her face. “I think that sometimes we forget that Black women who are Olympians are still Black women moving in the world, and are dealing with the same pressures and mistreatment and microaggressions as other Black women,” she said in July, ahead of the Games. “And I think if we want to make a commitment to the mental health of Black women Olympians, we have to make a commitment to the mental health of all Black women, regardless of if they are professional athletes or teachers, stay-at-home moms, [or] house cleaners. Because for Black women who are Olympians—the spotlight is on us right now. But when it fades, most of the time I’m moving in a space, I’m recognized as a Black woman, not an Olympian. And maybe that will change. Maybe it won’t. But the reality is I’ll always be a Black woman. And that’s how it is for all of us.”
Acknowledging both their struggles to be on top of their game and their fight to maintain mental well-being is the kind of sports leadership that’s long been undervalued and underrecognized. It’s the kind of excellence—involving the entirety of the self—that we should all be rooting for.