At the end of the Tokyo Olympics this summer, I was asked to nominate a highlight of the Games and went for Britain’s dominant men’s 4x200m freestyle gold in the swimming pool, conceding that ‘highlight’ was perhaps not the right word to describe the event that will actually live longest in the memory. Happily, this seems a more fitting forum.
Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the women’s team final at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre on the night of July 27 was among the defining moments of a most unique Games, certainly its most shocking and, potentially, its most consequential, too.
After bailing out of her planned vault and landing awkwardly on what would prove her only piece of apparatus of the night, Biles, a four-time gold medalist from Rio 2016 and the single biggest star in Tokyo, disappeared from sight and when she returned to the arena it was to tell her teammates that she could not go on.
As the news eventually funnelled through to the media, all sorts of speculation and rumour did the rounds.
One US broadcaster broke with protocol and screamed her support to Biles from the gantry, urging those seated around her (not only members of the working media but also support staff, volunteers, coaches and just about anyone else who had successfully managed to wangle their way into what must’ve been one of the best attended events of a behind-closed-doors Games) to do the same.
For most, the immediate feeling was one of confusion and perhaps, from a selfish perspective, disappointment at not getting the chance to see one of the greatest sportspeople of all-time do her thing.
Both, however, dissipated after an astounding mixed-zone interview in which Biles, accompanied by her teammates, stood in front of the world’s media, social-distancing out of the window as dozens of journalists crammed in, and offered up the most remarkable articulation of her struggles, the magnitude of what she was saying instantly clear.
The subject of mental health in elite sport has, as in society at large, been working its way up the agenda in recent years but that climb, in a sporting context in particular, has been accelerated over the last eighteen months.
The general state of anxiety brought about by the pandemic has amplified the stresses of life as a top level athlete, not helped by the conditions that have been necessary to keep the show on the road - empty stadiums, bio-secure bubbles, quarantine and increased time spent away from family and friends.
Athletes often thought of as superhuman, like Ben Stokes and Naomi Osaka, have felt the need - and felt able - to take a break.
But it was Biles’ bravery in the middle of one of the most watched finals at the biggest sporting event on the planet that, even in the moment, felt like a game-changer and will likely stand as the reference point from hereon in, giving licence to athletes at all levels to prioritise their wellbeing in the face of intense pressure and expectation, shifting the default narrative away from talk of bottling and buckling.
From a Games that will, hopefully, prove one-of-a-kind, that should be an enduring takeaway.