Simone Biles' withdrawal about much more than 'mental health'

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

U.S.A. gymnast Simone Biles practices a floor routine. Image: Marissa Babin/Flickr

It feels churlish to voice this, but I'm not sure I agree with Simone Biles's ringing words: "I say put mental health first." Second or third -- maybe.

I mean we're not dealing here (as far as we know) with some internal biochemical imbalances she and others were born with. The distress stems from a situation: Olympics culture in its 2021 version. The first incarnation of "mental health" arose in the First World War (bear with me -- George Orwell said sport is "war minus the shooting") with symptoms like shell-shock, the predecessor to PTSD.

Politicians wanted the shrinks to "fix" the soldiers and get them back to the abattoir, but some resisted because, er, war was the real problem. You can revisit it in Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy of novels. What if the problem isn't the athletes, but rather the Olympics?

The athletes feel real pain and deserve support and relief, but you don't want to use mental healthification to let the source of that pain off the hook. There's a shabbiness to these games in particular: the issue isn't just empty arenas, it's a sense that they're only being held to avoid financial losses and serve the egos and careers of pols and sportsocrats against the unmistakably expressed opposition of the host population. The shrinks seem clearly in service of this juggernaut, not the athletes. "If you had a week or could probably get her back to what she needed to do," said one well-focused doc.

Some athletes are blindingly clear about this. A pissed-off Daniil Medvedev of the farcical Russian Olympic Committee team said, "I can finish the [tennis] match, but I can die. If I die, are you going to be responsible?" Family and old friends weren't allowed in -- people who loved these athletes from before their rise to fame -- unlike IOC officials, for whom they're mealtickets, or fans for whom they're avatars expected to fulfil impossible dreams or incur hatred.

In addition, these games echo the new Cold War, like the Olympics back then, which were unabashedly tools to wield against the other side. Are you surprised it puts the athletes in a bind? "It just sucks when you are fighting with your own head," said Biles. "That just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people." You can't reduce all that to her mental health, unless you're out to hide stuff.

If you want a more precise model for Biles's impasse, consider the late Edward Said's analysis of solo classical concert performers. (Besides being a literary scholar and Palestinian advocate, he was a music critic and pianist.)

With the rise of the middle classes in the 1800s, public, ticketed concert halls replaced the courts, cathedrals and salons that previously supported musicians. This created for the virtuoso soloist what Said called "an extreme situation" along with "a perilous experience full of constant risk and potential a confined space." It had audiences "waiting for you to fail" and an "element of blood sport" like bullfighting. The performer had to "do things that almost by definition no one else can do" in "a situation where all kinds of dismaying things can happen -- memory slips...confusion, missed concentration, finger trouble..." Does that sound like Biles getting in trouble during her botched vault or what?

The concert hall was a place of "intense competition," where other musicians tried to "get ahead at your expense" and had a stake in your "disastrous performance." This led Canada's brilliant pianist, Glenn Gould -- whom Said revered -- to abandon concert stages for the recording studio, where he could be creative, not just skilled and ridiculously brave. Said felt such pressure precluded real creativity, which Gould found in the world of "take twoness."

It brings to mind Biles's own creativity. She's apparently invented gymnastic moves so original that the judges (who reside on their own impenetrable Olympus from which they pass judgment) had no way of scoring.

Maybe she should move to her version of a recording studio, where she can do some undisturbed take-twoing on her routines and perhaps also just get the hell out of Dodge. She really has nothing left to prove there anyway.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Marissa Babin/Flickr

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.