Simone Biles and the dangers of the ‘superhuman’ narrative at the Olympic Games

By Anna Noble

Simone Biles has a combined 30 Olympic and World Championship medals, including four Olympic gold medals, and is the most decorated American gymnast in history and arguably the greatest gymnast of all time. Often dubbed by media outlets as ‘superhuman’. 

She is also 24, a sexual assault survivor, and above all else is a human being whose mental health is paramount. 

Biles’ withdrawal from the Tokyo Olympic Games is likely to become one of the most talked-about moments of the 2020 Olympic Games, coming in dramatic fashion amid the Gymnastics Team final. The withdrawal followed an incident that should be characterised as traumatic. 

Biles attempted to vault a Yurchenko 2.5 twist but appeared to lose her way or potentially have had a mental block forcing her to bail. Instead, she only executed a 1.5 twist to try and regain her composure and prevent herself from suffering serious injury. Several former gymnasts and journalists have commented on how serious and terrifying the vault mistake was, with Deanna Hong a videographer for UCLA gymnastics taking to Twitter to state that former US elite gymnasts she had spoken to had said any other gymnast would have “certainly blown a knee, at a minimum” with another stating “I probably would have ended up paralyzed.”

The dangers that athletes such as Biles face every day should not be underestimated or dismissed

This is where Piers Morgan, who seems to be making a habit out of unfairly criticising women of colour through his Daily Mail columns, criticism that Biles quit because “she wasn’t having fun” falls flat. Whilst Biles did that she was not “having as much fun”, in explaining her withdrawal, she cited much more serious concerns. Errors whilst attempting something that complex are traumatic because of the significant danger they possess. Let’s not forget, gymnasts have become paralysed or even died because of mistakes.

Cameroonian gymnast Djala Abaka died this year at just 21, after falling and breaking her neck on the uneven bars having trained with subpar equipment. The dangers that athletes such as Biles face every day should not be underestimated or dismissed. It is for that reason that mental health is so important for gymnasts and athletes more generally. Biles stated after her withdrawal “we want to walk out of here, not be dragged out on a stretcher, I don’t trust myself as much as I used to”, a key indication of why Biles may have been so affected by the vault error. Biles should be praised for recognising the physical dangers of competing when she was mentally not at her best. 

This is why the ‘superhuman’ narrative is so damaging, it is dehumanising. This should not need to be said but Simone Biles is a human being and should be praised as such, it should also be recognised that as a human being she is susceptible to emotions and mistakes. Furthermore, making mistakes in no way overshadows any of her achievements or just how great of a gymnast and athlete Biles is. In an Instagram post before the team final, Biles commented that she “felt like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders”, indicative of how the expectation and narrative the media have placed on Biles, had affected her. 

Simone Biles is a human being and should be praised as such

Biles’ bravery should also be recognised. At 24 she has experienced more than many will in a lifetime. Whilst training for Tokyo, Biles came out as one of the over 150 athletes abused by Larry Nasser, and let down by USA gymnastics, and will have had to reckon with not only the very public fallout of the scandal but her own personal emotions. This coupled with the coronavirus restrictions and being separated from family throughout the games, is likely to have taken its toll on Biles. Biles even coming and performing at the games should be admired. 

The media and society need to do a better job of remembering that at the end of the day, athletes are human beings, human beings with emotions, trauma, and bad days. No one is ‘superhuman’ and athletes prioritising their mental health needs to be encouraged. Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles are starting long overdue conversations on the importance of athlete mental health. 

Image: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil

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