Biles’ Olympic debacle sparks stars to go public about mental health

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Paris (AFP) – American gymnastics superstar Simone Biles’ legacy may not be the four Olympic gold medals she won in her career, but a stunning meltdown at the Tokyo Olympics that prompted other sports greats to speak out about their battle with mental health issues.

Biles’ attack on the twisties — a condition that means gymnasts lose the ability to orient themselves in mid-air — is perhaps the most enduring image of the Games.

Since then, retired French football icon Thierry Henry and Irish rugby great Keith Earls have spoken candidly about their problems.

Biles’ struggles follow Japan’s four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka, who admitted her struggles with depression in May last year.

Henry usually presented a very calm and confident figure on and off the pitch, so his admission came as a surprise to many.

“Crying was impossible,” Henry told L’Equipe newspaper in March.

“You are not allowed to show your weaknesses.

“It was: Thierry, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry!

“I cried when I was alone, but I fought with myself not to burst out in public.

“Now I’m crying,” added the Arsenal legend.

Earls has amassed over 90 caps for Ireland and was a key member of the Six Nations Grand Slam winning team in 2018.

He was diagnosed as bipolar in 2013 after biting the bullet and seeing a psychiatrist.

The 34-year-old’s opening in his 2021 autobiography ‘Fight or Flight: My Life, My Choices’ was described as “inspiring” by his Ireland team-mate James Ryan.

“My admiration for him (Earls) has grown more, the way he’s able to normalize it, that it doesn’t matter who you are… Mental health doesn’t discriminate,” Ryan said.

Earls says that on the back of his revelations, other teammates have decided to go and see a psychiatrist.

This transparency seems to have broken the taboo where it was not seen as something done for athletes to go see someone to discuss their mental health.

“Twenty years ago it was the same in terms of mental preparation for events,” Greg Decamps, a researcher in sports psychology at Bordeaux University, told AFP.

“No one said, ‘I’m seeing a mental coach.’

“We’re starting to see the same thing in terms of consultations in sports psychology clinics.

“Because we cannot expect athletes to perform if there are unresolved psychological problems.”

England men’s Test cricket captain Ben Stokes is another who has opened the door on mental health issues.

The 31-year-old followed a long list of cricketers such as Marcus Trescothick, Sarah Taylor and Andrew Flintoff who have struggled with mental health when he admitted his problems last year, taking four months off the game to manage the illness his.

“I was in a real dark place and had some difficult thoughts,” he said in May when he was promoted to captain.

“Now I realize that speaking up is such a powerful thing and it has completely changed me.”

‘There was suffering’

That’s not to say that in the unforgiving world of sports, the doors are wide open for something that some still see as a stigma.

“Sports is a world that prides itself on excellence, strength, masculinity and where any sign of weakness is forbidden,” said Decamp.

“Those who speak up will be considered, often wrongly, as ineligible to go to a national championship or an Olympics.”

Decamp says teams are still tight-lipped about whether the reason a player or athlete is out is due to mental health issues.

However, some sports bodies have taken steps to address the issue.

In the United States, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) introduced “six months of paid mental health leave” in February this year.

This was welcomed by many players, including Cari Roccaro, who played a leading role in getting the NWSL to adopt such a policy after she suffered mental health issues.

“Girls who tear their ACL still get paid, even though they’re away from the team for months,” Roccaro said in March.

“Why Treat a Mental Injury Any Differently?”

Perhaps surprisingly, success on the court or field does not protect you from the black dogs of depression.

France’s Olympic gold medalist women’s handball coach Olivier Krumbholz says success doesn’t protect against mental health problems Franck FIFE AFP

According to Olivier Krumbholz, coach of the Olympic gold medal-winning women’s handball team, mental health problems are more visible than ever before and “even more so when there are good results”.

He told AFP that after the team’s moment of glory in Tokyo “there was suffering”.

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