In the opening minutes of the Olympic women’s gymnastics team final, American Simone Biles planned to do one of the world’s most difficult vaults, requiring her to twist her body two-and-a-half times in mid-air. But as soon as her body launched from the vaulting horse, it was clear something was wrong. Instead of twisting like usual, Biles hung directionless in the air, a passenger on a high-speed ride she no longer controlled. She landed—and then numbly stepped off the runway.
Watching Biles’ story unfold, it was impossible not to think of another seminal Olympic vault from another era. In the Atlanta 1996 team final, U.S. coach Bela Karolyi ordered gymnast Kerri Strug, who’d crushed her ankle on a bad landing, to get up and vault again. “You can do it!” Karolyi barked, part exhortation, part command. Strug propelled her body over the horse, saluting the judges before collapsing in pain.
A quarter-century after Strug’s infamous vault, Biles – facing a similar pivotal moment – made a completely different decision: She opted out entirely. Her body, she later said, felt decoupled from what her mind was telling it to do, so to ensure her safety and wellbeing, she scratched from the gold-medal final.
“It was like, you know what, I don’t want to do something stupid, get hurt,” she told the press. “It’s not worth it.”
She said she was inspired by tennis player Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open in June to protect her mental health.
The culture change spurred by athletes like Biles and Osaka will have ripple effects far beyond the playing field, says Dr. Colleen Hacker, an exercise scientist and mental skills coach at Pacific Lutheran University – even in our own lives, if we’re open to the possibility. Biles’ decision to prioritise her wellbeing over medals and accolades, Hacker says, “may be one of the most heroic moments of these Olympic Games.”
WINNING AT ALL COSTS?
For decades after the Atlanta gymnastics team’s gold medal, the nation lionised both Karolyi and Strug – Strug for gutting it out, Karolyi for bearing down to squeeze the most out of her. Every news clip, every retrospective, had the same subtext: Putting your body and mind on the line to clinch the win was the ultimate power move.
Then, subtly at first, the momentum began to shift. In 2019, quarterback Andrew Luck left the National Football League at the height of his powers, citing a desire to preserve his health. Osaka left the French Open with no lasting regrets. And then, most explosively, came Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, saying she valued her safety and mental health more than any medal.
“I know we talk about mental awareness a lot lately, but to see it happen, in front of us and not behind closed doors, is huge,” former US gymnast Vanessa Atler wrote after Biles pulled out of team finals.
These athletes’ choices are fuelling conversations about where selflessness – whether in service to one’s sport, country, or company – morphs into pernicious self-denial. The Bela Karolyi mentality of the 1980s and 90s, and the way it fetishised sacrifice, thrived in a broader culture where most people were considered replaceable cogs in larger systems. Can’t hack it in competition? Go home. Can’t deal with your sadistic boss? Make way for the seat-filler behind you.
That seems to be changing. High-profile athletes like Luck, Osaka, and Biles are rejecting the idea that we should forfeit wellbeing to win competitions or get promoted. In fact, research lends some support to their position.
In one Fuller Theological Seminary study, competitors with a ‘win-no-matter-what’ philosophy had lower levels of life satisfaction than their peers and higher levels of anxiety and depression.
By contrast, athletes who had a strong sense of purpose and a belief that life was more than competition reported the highest levels of wellbeing, independent of their results on the field.
A SYSTEMS APPROACH
Individual rebellions are important, but focusing on a few star athletes can obscure the degree to which they, and we, are the products of systems that shape our choices and behaviour. Whether you’re a gymnast, a physician, or a restaurant manager, the structure you’re part of is engineered to help you achieve certain goals.
University of Melbourne sports researchers have developed a systems model that illustrates how the so-called “macrosystem,” the broader landscape of national sports culture, informs the culture within sports like gymnastics. This in turn forms the foundation of the athlete-coach relationship and the decisions an athlete makes.
American gymnastics was ruled for decades by Bela Karolyi and his wife Marta, who fostered a win-at-all-costs culture. In recent years, gymnasts broke ranks to describe an atmosphere of rampant verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse. Repudiating the Karolyi ethos seems to have evened out the power balance between individual athletes and coaches.
In this newer, less hierarchical training setting, Biles felt empowered to speak up and to act on her own best interests. “Four or five years ago, that definitely wouldn’t have been the Simone,” she reflected. “I would have gone out there and did whatever.”
Similarly, individual flourishing in the corporate world is nested within a broader cultural context. In a Norwegian Business School meta-analysis of 72 studies involving more than 80,000 participants, employees reported their wellbeing was higher in organisations that featured mentoring or other human resources programs to support their health and performance. If your work environment doesn’t meet this standard, you’ll likely have a tougher time asserting your needs in a high-pressure situation.
Still, no matter the health of the system you belong to, protecting your wellbeing doesn’t have to mean avoiding uphill paths that leave you worn out but ultimately fulfilled.
It can be gratifying to suffer pain, discomfort, and anxiety, so long as the choice is yours, and is aligned with your own purpose. Students who reported significant “positive stress” in a Pitzer College study – feeling challenged, but also engaged and capable – enjoyed high levels of life satisfaction.
In this ideal scenario, self-realisation and self-transcendence become one and the same. As Biles realised, it’s when there’s a mismatch between internal purpose and external, systemic demands that a choice to opt out becomes critical.