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Simone Biles withdraws from Olympic all-around

July 28, 2021

The American gymnast will not defend her Olympic crown in the individual all-around, withdrawing from the competition for mental health reasons. Whether Biles will compete in Tokyo remains unclear.

Simone Biles
Simone Biles is among a growing number of elite athletes prioritizing their mental healthImage: Gregory Bull/AP/picture alliance

American gymnast Simone Biles will not defend her Olympic gold medal in the individual all-around competition to focus on her mental health, USA Gymnastics confirmed on Wednesday.

Biles, 24, had pulled out of the team competition a day earlier citing mental health concerns. She had been aiming to become the first woman in more than 50 years to retain an all-around title, but that will now not happen.

"After further medical evaluation, Simone Biles has withdrawn from the final individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games, in order to focus on her mental health," USA Gymnastics wrote in a statement.

"Simone will continue to be evaluated daily to determine whether or not to participate in next week's individual event finals.

"We wholeheartedly support Simone's decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being. Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many."

A case of the 'twisties'

Four-time Olympic champion Biles looked out of sorts during the team competition on Tuesday, appearing to change her mind mid-vault as she posted a score of 13.766, her lowest-ever Olympic score in that area. She immediately left the competition floor and only returned to support her teammates, who went on to win the silver medal.

"We have to protect our mind and body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do," Biles told reporters.

"I had no idea where I was in the air, I could have hurt myself," she said, later admitting that she was having "a little bit of the twisties."

The twisties are a phenomenon in gymnastics whereby the gymnast suffers something akin to a mental block and feels like they are not able to control their body as it flies through the air.

Biles' case underlines the risks these competitors face when, for whatever reason, they are not able to fully focus on the task in hand.

"Simply your life is in danger when you're doing gymnastics," said Sean Melton, a former elite gymnast, in an interview with The Washington Post. "It's terrifying, honestly, because you have no idea what is going to happen."

Sports psychologist: 'Call for help'

Markus Raab, a sports psychologist from the Germany Sports University in Cologne, told DW that the coronavirus pandemic would have adversely affected athletes' preparations for the Games.

"The Olympics is always about winning, but the conditions changed quite a lot," Raab said. "For Biles, there was quite a lot of media attention and very high expectation on her to win another round of medals.

"And then, there is the environment, like COVID and social distancing. These are not the pre-routines you normally do as an athlete under these conditions.

"You are not sure if this is really a stress symptom, burnout, or maybe depression. But if an athlete stops in a competition like the Olympics, I do believe this is a call for help." 

Team USA rallies behind Biles

"You've made us so proud," said Sarah Hirshland, the head of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, before the news emerged of her withdrawal from the individual all-round event.

"We applaud your decision to prioritize your mental wellness over all else and offer you the full support and resources of our Team USA community as you navigate the journey ahead."

American Michael Phelps, the former swimmer who picked up 23 gold medals during his career, said Biles' decision "broke my heart."

"I hope this is an eye-opening experience, I really do," the 36-year-old said. "I hope this is an opportunity for us to jump on board, and to even blow this mental health thing even more wide open. It is so much bigger than we can ever imagine."

Biles said that she had been inspired by Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from June's French Open when she was battling mental health problems.

Osaka crashed out of the Tokyo Olympics event in the third round on Tuesday.

jmc, jf/dv (AP, AFP, Reuters)