It seems fitting that the first defining moment of the 2020 Tokyo Olympicsheld not in 2020 but in 2021, in a bubble meant to separate it from Tokyowas also its most disconcerting: Simone Biles, high in the air, looking lost. Having performed one and a half of the planned two and a half twists of her vault, she suddenly flung her arms open to stop her spinning. Her body torqued, her head going one way while her legs went another, and then pitched forward, stumbling and lunging into a landing. It would have felt strange to watch any gymnast vault so awkwardly, but it was especially shocking to see it from Biles, who, normally, has unparalleled body control, and an unerring sense of herself in the air.
It also seems fitting that the second defining moment of the Games came when Biles recovered in an unexpected way, moments later, by telling her coaches and teammates that she was pulling out of the team competition. A woman whose name has become synonymous with pushing the limits of the body and mind had hit hers, and she had the strength to say so.
Initially, she said later, she was worried about her body as much as her mind. Given her loss of air senseher case of the twisties, as gymnasts evocatively call itshe knew that continuing in the competition could be dangerous. At the end of the day, its, like, we want to walk out of here, not be dragged out here on a stretcher, she told reporters. I just dont trust myself as much as I used to. And I dont know if its ageIm a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics. I feel like Im also not having as much fun, and I know that.
The connection between the body and mind can be mysterious. Biles has won national and world championships with kidney stones and broken toes. She has, as the sportswriting clich has it, overcome every kind of adversity: the long odds of a difficult childhood; overt racism from envious competitors and their coaches; and, horrifically, sexual abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, a team doctor whose predatory behavior was enabled by the very organizations that she continued, painfully, to representin part, she said, to hold it to account.
Athletes have always had bouts of the yips. Athletes have always been prone to alcoholism, anorexia, and other manifestations of mental illness. They have not always had the support, publicly or privately, to address these problems. But the climate has been shifting, and the connotations of terms that we associate with great athletes have been changing. Perseverance without considering the conditions that one is enduring can be arrogance, or recklessness. Toughness can lead to lasting damage. Fearlessness doesnt necessarily mean a free mind. In fact, we now know that some of those who were most often called fearlessyoung female gymnasts, flying and tumbling in astonishing ways under extreme pressurewere trapped in a system that cultivated fear. People can do a lot of things if they think they dont have a choice.
I didnt quit, Biles wrote, on Instagram, as she documented her difficulties performing skills that had been, to her, second nature. My mind & body are simply not in sync. The twisties had struck her before, she explained, though this was the first time she had lost her ability to twist on every apparatus. Could be triggered by stress I hear but Im also not sure how true that is, she added. Other gymnasts have said that the twisties can be exacerbated by stress or difficulties out of the gym but that they can also strike for seemingly no reason at all. Its the craziest feeling ever, not having an inch of control over your body, Biles went on. Whats even scarier is since I have no idea where I am in the air I also have NO idea how Im going to land.
Its impossible to say what part, if any, the bizarre circumstances of the Olympics played in her loss of air sense: the empty stands, the yearlong delay, the mounting pressure to be a redemptive force, the relentlessness of the pandemics progress. Regardless, Biles has been open about what a difficult year, and Olympics, it has been. The last thing Biles normally does before she competes is look in the stands to find her family. In Tokyo, for the first time in her career, her parents werent there to watch her perform.
When these Olympics began, Tokyo was in a state of emergency, and, throughout the Olympics, day after day, the city set new national highs for cases of the coronavirus. The news about the virus is worsening again almost everywhere. As Americans were tallying medals in the pool and on the track, U.S. officials back home were scrambling to cope with the Delta variant. What was supposed to be a summer of celebration, a chance to appreciate the power of community and the human spiritthe ideals of the Olympics, more or lesswas turning into a time of confusion and uncertainty.
It has been hard to know how to feel about these Olympic Games in such a climate. The Olympics are always riven by the tension between elation and despairand joy has been as visible as ever in Tokyo. It was on the shocked face of the Norwegian Karsten Warholm as he clutched his head and screamed in disbelief at the time on the clock45.94 secondsafter he beat the American Rai Benjamin in the mens four-hundred-metre hurdles. They had pushed each other, and the sport, to a place that didnt seem possible, at least not yet: both men shattered the world record. The joy was in a crowded room in Minnesota where the gymnast Sunisa Lees family and friends watched her win the all-around gold. It was visible in the exhausted smile of Sydney McLaughlin after she caught Dalilah Muhummad in the final stretch of the womens four-hundred-metre hurdles. (She set a world record, too.) I felt it watching Chinas Quan Hongchan in the womens ten-metre platform dive, as she spun through the air, toes pointed, a pike like a clamp, and slipped into the water almost without a splash.
The familiar pain was also present. I felt it watching Carli Lloyd sitting on a ball and clutching her head after the U.S. womens national soccer team lost in the semifinals to Canada, and learning that Japans Kenichiro Fumita had sobbed as he spoke to the press after winning the silver medal in Greco-Roman wrestling, apologizing for this shameful result.
But there was also, among some of the athletes, a new, or newly prominent, way of speaking about loss and disappointment and pressure. After the American Noah Lyles took the bronze in the mens two-hundred-metre dash, a race hed expected to win, he spoke about his mental-health struggles and the difficulties of the past year. He talked about his brother Josephus, who had also been training for the Olympics, but who battled injuries and did not make the team. Sometimes I think to myself, This should be him, Lyles said, in tears. Lyles said that, in the past, antidepressants and therapy had helped him, and that he wanted people who were watching to be aware of that. (He said he had gone off the medication before the Olympics, because he thought that might help his performance.) I knew there was a lot of people out there like me whos scared to say something or to even start that journey, he said. I want you to know that its O.K. to not feel good, and you can go out and talk to somebody professionally, or even get on medication, because this is a serious issue and you dont want to wake up one day and just think, You know, I dont want to be here anymore. He spoke, too, about everything track has given him, the way it has been a refuge, and the doors it has opened for other interests in his life, such as fashion and art. Shoot, he said, Im going to the Met Gala.
Lyles was not the only American track star to talk about mental health. After winning silver in shot put, Raven Saunders held her arms over her head in an X once the winners national anthem was over, in defiance of the I.O.C.s ban on protesting on the podium. The X was for oppressed people, she said, explaining that the planning for the protest took place over group text with American athletes from several sports. Im a Black female, Im queer, and I talk about mental-health awareness, she told NBC. I deal with depression, anxiety, and P.T.S.D., a lot. I represent being at that intersection. Late in the week, the sprinter Allyson Felix, on the verge of surpassing Carl Lewiss American record for Olympic medals in track and field, wrote, on Instagram, about fear. Im afraid of letting people down, she wrote. Of letting myself down. I hold myself to such high standards and Im realizing as Im sitting here the night before my final individual Olympic final that in a lot of ways Ive let my performances define my worth. Ive been afraid that my worth is tied to whether or not I win or lose. But right now Ive decided to leave that fear behind. To understand that I am enough. She added, Im not sharing this note for me. Im sharing it for any other athletes who are defining themselves by their medal count. Im writing this for any woman who defines her worth based on whether or not shes married or has kids. Im writing it for anyone who thinks that the people you look up to on TV are any different than you. I get afraid just like you, but you are so much more than enough.
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