I’ve never been an Olympic gymnast a day of my life, but I absolutely know what it’s like to have a demanding career in the public eye in which I’m expected to perform at the best of my abilities every single day despite facing immeasurable scrutiny. I know what it’s like to have whatever stressors or personal demons I’m battling dismissed entirely in favor of meeting ridiculous expectations that have been unfairly placed upon me. I know what it’s like to smile through frustration. I know what it’s like to laugh through trauma. I know what it’s like not to be allowed to falter. I know what it’s like not to be allowed to be human.
Naomi Osaka chose refuge over participating in the French Open; Sha’Carri Richardson made a similar decision that cost her a chance at pursuing Olympic gold. With the advent of social media, we live in a world where celebrities, public figures, professional athletes, and the people we know and love are lambs to the slaughter when it comes to public critique. In the digital age, solace is a luxury none of us have. Chaos is our acquaintance, uncertainty is our tormentor.
Following Sunday’s preliminary round of the Tokyo Olympics, in which Simone Biles and the rest of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team made a less than stellar debut, the five-time Olympic gold medalist took to Instagram to admit that yes, she’s human, too.
“It wasn’t an easy day or my best but I got through it,” she wrote. “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The Olympics is no joke!”
This immense pressure to perform would only intensify during the team finals on Tuesday. With the Russian Olympic Committee hungry for its first gold in a women’s team event since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Biles made an uncharacteristic mistake on the vault. When you’re considered the best ever in your sport, imperfections are mistaken for a sign of the apocalypse. However, in this instance, it’s much more likely that they were actually a desperate plea for help.
“Whenever you get in a high-stress situation you kind of freak out,” she said after the event. “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being. We have to protect our body and our mind. It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”
Soon after, Biles declined to guarantee her participation in Thursday’s individual all-around competition. And by Tuesday night, it became official: The most-decorated gymnast of all time, a talent so transcendent that she has her own Twitter emoji to extol her greatness, will not be participating in order to preserve her mental health.
In light of this decision, detractors have emerged from every orifice of the internet to attack her for disappointing her fans, her teammates, and her country instead of celebrating the 24-year-old for refusing to be a martyr. Her decision to protect her emotional well-being over entertaining the masses should be commended. Instead of being a mule to a world that consistently goes to great lengths to blatantly abuse, disparage, and devalue Black women, she’s taken command of her agency has prioritized the one thing no one can take from her: her self-worth.
And honestly, the world would be a much better place if the rest of us did the same.