This week, Simone Biles unexpectedly withdrew from the team and individual all-around gymnastics events at the Tokyo Olympics. The 24-year-old told reporters she wanted to focus on her mental health after experiencing the “twisties” – a condition in which a gymnast loses his or her spatial awareness during a move – in practice. It is no surprise that Biles is under overwhelming stress. With speculation that the four-time Olympic champion has plans to retire after Tokyo, pressure to walk away on a triumphant note would have left any athlete anxious.
But unlike most other athletes gearing up for the Olympics, Biles is held to impossible expectations. That is not only because she is the greatest in her sport, but also because she is a Black woman dominating an industry that has neglected and discriminated against athletes of her kind. A woman like Biles was never meant to be the greatest gymnast of all time, and because of that, she is held to higher standards and became a role model to the next generation of Black gymnasts and Black women. That is an incredible burden, even for someone who is not stepping onto the biggest stage in sports.
“She has put her hat on to be the mentor and protector of her former gymnastic athletes, but also of the new team,” says Eden Ghebresellassie, a former creative strategy lead at ESPN. Ghebresellassie’s role focused on diversity, equity, inclusion, and social and sustainable impact in the sports industry, providing her with inside knowledge of the systems that control athletes.
“If your employees, and in this case, athletes, feel safe – whether it’s safe when it comes to their mental health, their race, or being a woman – they will thrive in their work,” Ghebresellassie explains.
Just a month before Biles’s Olympic withdrawal, Naomi Osaka pulled out of Wimbledon. The decision came after the 23-year-old exited the French Open due to social anxiety, particularly around press conferences. Osaka has always been vocal about topics like anxiety and race, yet the public didn’t let her off easily. Immediately after her withdrawal, Osaka faced criticism about her decision to prioritize her mental health.
A case of the twisties and discomfort with interviews aren’t the only factors that caused Biles and Osaka to step away. Public scrutiny, pressure and racism also played their part. While white athletes too are subjected to strenuous workouts, long practices, and press scrutiny, their Black counterparts must deal with added stressors. When England soccer players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka missed penalties in their team’s shootout loss in the Euro 2020 final, defeat wasn’t the only thing they needed to deal with; they were also bombarded with racist messages on social media. A mural of Rashford was defaced with an obscene drawing and expletives shortly after the loss.
Not that winning protects Black athletes from racism: a moment of celebration is often soured by abuse. There is no greater example than Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time and also a leading target of racism from the media, fans and social media. In 2001, Serena and her sister Venus Williams were booed and called the N-word during the final of Indian Wells in California. Then in 2015, moments after she won the French Open, hateful comments on Twitter comparing her to a gorilla went viral.
“There is a big intertwined storytelling that comes from the fans or the media, that hits the player,” Ghebresellassie says. “I think at a certain point, that hate and that anger fuels a player to kind of prove people wrong, but then ultimately it gets to them. We’ve seen Serena break down on the court, and if you compare her to other white tennis players, they’re viewed as passionate and secure about themselves, and that’s why they were defending their game. But when it comes to Serena, she’s just the angry Black woman.”
The heightened level of stress that Black athletes endure hurts them at moments. when a clear mind is needed, such as the Olympics or the final of a Grand Slam. But racism isn’t only an issue for the best of the best, like Biles and Williams.
Even at the US collegiate level, Black athletes are subjected to racism and discrimination. “There’s definitely an unlevel playing field. I’ve seen instances where things that a Black athlete does are seen as negative versus when other athletes do it,” says Mike Watkins, a 31-year-old athletic trainer.
Watkins recalls the difference in how two outstanding athletes were treated for breaking rules such as getting drunk on nights out. “There was one Black athlete and one white athlete, and they were getting into the same trouble, yet things were kind of lightly glazed over with the white athlete,” he says. “Even how other athletic trainers would talk about [the white athlete] would be different versus Black athletes.”
When Black athletes came in for injury treatment, Watkins says, they were viewed by training staff as lazy or trying to get out of playing time, a dangerous belief to hold when caring for someone’s health. He says such discrimination even made some Black athletes hide their injuries. Watkins says he often had to push them to admit they were in pain. “Two of my Black athletes, when I worked with gymnastics, felt more comfortable and felt like they were only listened to by medical staff because I was there,” he says. “But if a white athlete had concerns, all things needed to stop to make sure nothing was wrong with them. There’s definitely a double standard.”
Watkins has been in the athletic and mental training industry for 10 years and previously worked as a trainer in college gymnastics.
His firsthand understanding of the injuries that can occur from one misstep in gymnastics is why he believes Biles made the right decision to step down.
“I saw people on Facebook saying she only pulled out because she knew she was losing,” Watkins says. “And it’s actually far from that. If she would have continued going, she would have absolutely hurt herself more.”
Similar to Osaka, who has the weight of her sport on her shoulders and her community looking at her to lead, Biles stepped down because of mental exhaustion and not receiving the same grace white athletes are offered.
“Maybe not even looking at them as an athlete, but seeing them as a human is what people should try to do,” Watkins says. “Because I’ve worked in such high athletic levels, seeing a highly elite athlete is very normalized for me. I don’t look at them as some spectacular human being. I look at them as just a regular person and understand their struggles, just like anyone else would.”