Gymnast Simone Biles shines a light on athletes’ mental health

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Joe Myers, Writer, Formative Content


  • United States gymnast Simone Biles has put the spotlight on athletes’ mental health at the Tokyo Olympics.
  • The multi-gold medalist has withdrawn from events, saying she needs to focus on her mental health.
  • She joins other Olympians, past and present, in opening up about their mental health.

American gymnast Simone Biles has shone a light on athletes’ mental health, after withdrawing from the team and individual all-around competitions at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

A decision is still to be made on whether she’ll compete in the individual apparatus competitions, USA Gymnastics said in a statement on Twitter.

After withdrawing from the team event on Tuesday, Biles explained she needed to put her mental health first.

“It’s like fighting all those demons and coming out here. I have to put my pride aside. I have to do it for the team,” she told reporters after the team competition.

“And then at the end of the day, it’s like, ‘You know what? I have to do what is right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and my well-being’,” she said.

Biles joins other Olympians in discussing their mental health

Simone Biles joins many other athletes in speaking publicly about mental health and the challenges and pressure they face – including former and current Olympians.

Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, who lit the Olympic cauldron in this year’s opening ceremony, withdrew from the French Open in May. Her withdrawal came after she was fined for refusing to speak to the media after her opening match.

She revealed then that she’d suffered long bouts of depression since the 2018 US Open.

“Anyone that knows me knows I am introverted and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.

“Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I want to apologize to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media,” she said at the time.

Michael Phelps, who won 25 Olympic swimming medals, revealed his own struggles with anxiety and depression in 2018.

“After every Olympics, I think I fell into a major state of depression,” he said. “I didn’t want to be in the sport any more. I didn’t want to be alive. You do contemplate suicide.”

“We’re supposed to be these big, macho, physically strong human beings, but this is not a weakness,” he said, explaining that he wanted to help eliminate some of the stigma around mental health.

Another swimmer, Japan’s Yui Ohashi, who won gold in the Tokyo pool on 28 July, has also struggled with depression.

She explained: “I had times when I wanted to give up swimming, but I learned to accept it and turned it into a strength.”

And Tom Daley, the British diver who won gold in Tokyo at his fourth Olympic Games, has publically discussed the grief of losing his father in 2011, explaining that he only allowed himself to properly grieve after the 2012 Olympics.

“It all hit me after the Olympics. There was this massive crash,” he told the BBC.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life any more, as London 2012 was all I’d had in my book – and for a few months I actually quit diving.”

Daley was also diagnosed with PTSD following the London 2012 games and saw a sports psychologist to help him.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes – promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

What can be done to help athletes?

Following Biles’ withdrawal, a spokesperson for the International Olympic Commission (IOC), Mark Adams, said that ‘more could be done’ on athlete mental health.

He added that the organization had been working on it for some time. In 2018, the IOC brought together a team of international experts to review existing literature on addressing mental health issues among elite athletes. The results were published the following year.

And in May this year, the organization launched a mental health toolkit to help elite athletes and other key stakeholders – like clubs and national federations – better protect and promote mental health and well-being.

A certificate – the IOC Elite Athlete Mental Health Certification – is also available, designed to help teams spot potential mental health concerns in their athletes.

Governments are also taking steps. For example, in 2018 the UK Government launched its first Mental Health Action Plan for Elite Sport, which also aims to help coaches and support staff to spot the signs of poor mental health.

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