To see Simone Biles on her way to winning four gold medals at the Rio Olympics back in 2016 was to see someone have the time in their life. The joy she took from her work, the simple joy of achieving was a pleasure to observe. At her post-event press conferences, her smile lit up the room. We journalists were charmed from our feet. It was no surprise that she looked satisfied. The things she did — despite gravity, physics, and logic with every leap, bound, and somersault — were so remarkable, even though she was bound to stand back and admire.
Five years later and how things have changed. Tuesday night in Tokyo, when the team gymnastics competition began, the champion looked distracted. Her characteristic verve and spirit were dimmed, her light was dimmed. Something was clearly wrong, as it was clear when she rejected her first routine, stumbled, stammered and scored the lowest single mark she has ever recorded at the Games. Moments later, she was gone and withdrew from the fight. The superstar had left the building.
It was an extraordinary moment in world sport. The 24-year-old Biles, apparently destined to be the most watched person on the planet during the 17 days of the Tokyo Olympics, had walked away in the middle of the competition. Not because she was physically injured, she later explained – to protect her mental health; something that has become a focus for a growing number of young sports stars. But does it help or hinder their play?
In the Covid-limited claustrophobia of Team USA Tokyo headquarters, Biles had felt anxious, confused, burdened by circumstances, responsibility, and a growing fear of the consequence of failure. “I just did not want to continue,” she said as she faced us journalists again after her decision, and her smile was no longer so radiant. In fact, we should have seen it coming. Just 24 hours before her retirement, she had posted on Instagram an abandoned post from the lonely isolation of her play area, separated by thousands of miles from the comforting arms of family and friends.
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