Let’s hope the relatively benign reaction to gymnast Simon Biles’ unexpected exit from the Olympics is a sign of some sort of societal shift, however slight.
Biles has six Olympic medals and 25 more from world gymnastics championships, more than enough proof that she can withstand pressure and perform with the world watching. Experts in the sport consider her the greatest ever. She’s done things no one else has done.
But Biles exited this year’s Olympics in Japan this week. She cited the pressure to perform, the stress of dealing with pandemic life and a sudden onset of “the twisties” — a condition in which a gymnast becomes disoriented while flipping and twisting through the air. Other gymnasts immediately understood and empathized.
In a sign that not much has changed in the public expectation and understanding, Biles received some criticism. But better than that, in a sign of progress, Biles was backed by teammates, observers, much of the media, plenty of the public and, most significantly, her corporate sponsors.
Biles’ admission and stepping back is a high-profile example of an issue on which society is shedding more of a light. Mental health continues to be an issue about which we spend a lot of time talking, but appear disinclined to do any more.
Mental health issues cannot be spotted with the naked eye or with a physical probe. Mental issues are unique to each person, as are symptoms and ways to discover and deal with issues.
But there are inevitably those who frame others’ issues with their experience and have disparaging words to offer. The nature of humanity is to judge, and the nature of judging in the 21st century leads directly to social media.
The principal problems are: no one can find their way to Biles’ headspace; as a society, we’re not exactly understanding when someone expresses concern about their personal mental health; no one but Biles will be able to tell whether this was the right thing to do, and it will be some time before she has the perspective to know the answer.
Those are the primary reasons we hope we do not but we fully expect we will see social media experts weighing in on all sides of the Biles/mental health discussion. We already have millions of COVID and vaccine “experts” clogging feeds.
You’re entitled to think whatever you wish about Biles, including wondering why you would possibly care. But if your immediate thought is some version of “she’s faking,” that may say more about you than about Biles.
If you think it’s fake, you’re exactly the type of person from whom it would be fake. That’s said without judgment. Some people’s makeup is such that they’re willing and able to not be debilitated by issues. That’s how heroes are made. But that doesn’t make those with moments of incapability are villains.
Going public is exactly the thing many suffering with mental issues struggle. Finally being willing to acknowledge the issue is an important step toward both mental and physical help. Simone Biles may have been struggling with this very issue for years. Yes, even when she was busy creating and executing no fewer than four gymnastics moves now named after her.
The world sometimes moves too fast for some people, and they fall by the wayside as casualties. People have been shell-shocked from the moment humanity took up arms. Some minds formed in a way generally considered outside of normal. Some minds are just more sensitive than others.
Walking in someone else’s shoes is never so important, nor so impossible.