When the Tokyo 2020 Olympics began back in July, I don’t think anyone expected how groundbreaking the competitions would be…especially when it came to what was happening behind the scenes. The 2020 Olympians proved that they weren’t afraid to be bold and fearless, especially when it came to disrupting gender norms and challenging everything we thought we knew about how athletes, and in particular female athletes, should behave.
First the Norwegian beach handball team made international news when the women opted to wear shorts instead of the traditional bikini bottoms. Then the German gymnastics team fought back against sexualization by completely revamping the traditional gymnastics leotard. Instead of wearing a high-cut leo, the German athletes opted for new Olympic suits that were full-body unitards.
No wonder the Tokyo Olympics are now being called a turning point for how female athletes dress, both for Olympic women as well as for girls and women across the globe who compete in community or school sports. After decades of wearing skimpy clothes (which are often dramatically more revealing and suggestive than fellow male competitors’ attire), these female champions have found the power of their collective voice and are pushing back against being viewed in a sexual light as they simply try to do their jobs.
We also had our first transgender athlete competing in the Olympics. Laurel Hubbard was the first openly transgender athlete to compete, taking a position on the New Zealand women’s weightlifting team.
“This moment is incredibly significant for the trans community, for our representation in sport and for all trans people and nonbinary kids to see themselves and know that sport is a place for them,” said Chris Mosier, a transgender athlete who competed in the Olympic racewalking trials.
We all deserve the right to feel safe in our bodies, but also the right to be active and move our bodies in the sport of our choice. Many times kids in the LGTBQ+ community feel like sports are not a welcoming place for them, so seeing transgender and gay athletes in the spotlight is helping to show that everyone belongs on the playing field.
Then we have Simone Biles. She faced global criticism when she announced her decision to sit out during the all-around and team finals. People said she was a quitter, a poor patriot, and not able to take the stress of being a top-level athlete.
Just days later, when talking with reporters about her mental health, Biles revealed that her beloved aunt had recently died.
“At the end of the day, people don’t understand what we are going through,” said Biles. “Two days ago, I woke up and my aunt unexpectedly passed, and it wasn’t any easier being here at the Olympic Games.”
Her aunt’s tragic passing is just one of many issues Biles faces as a top-tier athlete. Along with the pressure to be perfect and constantly outdo herself (no easy feat when she’s already one of the most iconic gymnasts in the world, an elite career that began when she was only 14 years old), but she also is one of the many gymnasts who were abused and traumatized by Larry Nassar.
For 18 years, Nassar was the team doctor for the U.S. women’s nationals gymnastics team, and during his career, he sexually abused hundreds of women and girls. Both Michigan State University and the USA Gymnastics organization were slow to take girls’ accusations about Nassar seriously, allowing him to continue abusing his patients for years. Biles was one of Nassar’s many victims, along with other top Olympians like Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, and Aly Raisman.
In a recent interview on NBC Today, Biles acknowledged that the weight of this trauma played a part in her mental health struggles as she headed to Tokyo.
We’re not just talking about torn muscles and broken bones and all the physical injuries that athletes endure, but also the emotional injuries which she had to suffer in silence for years. Her suffering was further compounded by the knowledge that the U.S. gymnastics organization, the organization whom she has repped and supported and helped to make LOTS of money, did next to nothing when they learned girls on their team were being abused by Nassar. They wanted to sweep the scandal under the rug and keep the accusations quiet. As a result, Nassar was empowered to keep harming young girls and women.
Is it any wonder Biles might have some lingering trauma and resistance to perform for the U.S. gymnastics team? As much as she loves the sport and adores and supports her teammates, these are very real and powerful emotions that deserve her attention. She deserves self-care. She deserves therapy and rest and time to speak her truth and heal her heart.
And she took it. With the entire world watching, with everyone expecting her to sweep up every medal possible, with everyone expecting her to put gold and fame above her own heart, she put up her hands and said, “No, not today. My mental health is more important.”
How incredible is that? How much strength and self-worth that decision took! I am in awe when I consider how brave she was to make such a choice, and I am even more in awe when I consider how many other young people have been inspired by her choice. She literally changed the conversation about success in this country, showing that medals and wealth mean nothing if you don’t feel okay in your mind and your heart. She showed us that it is okay to step back, to prioritize self-care, to discuss your mental health challenges, and acknowledge that you’re not okay.
I love that this is the legacy Biles has given to the U.S. gymnastics team as well as to survivors of sexual abuse. I love that she has shown us that survivors don’t always have to be ‘unbreakable’ or stoic or fiercely successful at all times. That we can break down, cry, rage, and just be overwhelmed by the pain. That we can be strong and sad and broken all at once. That we can be heroic and scared and angry all at once. That we can be champions even during those times when we need to sit down, sit out, and put our needs first.
That knowledge is worth all the gold medals in the world. And Simone Biles will always be a winner in my book. And thanks to these boundary-pushing female Olympians, the world of sports just got much more equitable and welcoming to all people.