Simone Biles, the American Olympic gymnast who is the most decorated American gymnast of all time, made headlines this week in Tokyo when she elected to prioritize her mental health over the risk of an injury in the Olympic competition, and withdrew from the team final. She was mature and calm when she made the decision, and in a statement she said:
I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a back seat, work on my mindfulness. And I knew that the girls would do an absolutely great job. And I didn't want to risk the team a medal for kind of my screwups, because they've worked way too hard for that. So I just decided that those girls need to go and do the rest of our competition. - Simone Biles
Her decision made headlines for the simple fact that it's rare for athletes to mention the pressure that competitions such as the Olympics can place on their minds as well as their bodies, and there was an immediate media pile-on not only of support for her gracious decision but also of opprobrium from people who felt that she should have "taken one for the team" and "been stronger" and carried on to the final.
One such nay-sayer was the Deputy Attorney General for Texas, Aaron Reitz, who in what he later described as "disappointment and frustration" cruelly tweeted that in withdrawing from competition rather than pressing on, Biles was a "selfish, childish, national embarrassment". He has since deleted the tweet, but it was a cruel and unnecessary thing to say to someone who had already sacrificed the dream of Olympic gold to protect their own mental state.
On Wednesday, though, Reitz made an about-turn. He has tweeted a comprehensive apology to Biles, saying:
Simone Biles is a true patriot and one of the greatest gymnasts of our time. I apologize to her, and wish her well. - Aaron Reitz
Quite right too. Reitz's tweet seems way more childish than Biles' measured and mature statement.
It has been suggested, and certainly, we can hope, that Biles' brave decision not to compete when her mental health meant that she might end up injured (through second-guessing her own movements at crucial moments) will mean that more athletes going forward feel able to speak out when the pressure becomes unbearable. Bringing the mental health of athletes - who compete in such stressful conditions, often on international TV - into the general conversation can only be a good thing going forward.
But not in the way that Reitz did it. It's a good thing that he has publicly apologized.
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