TOKYO — In midair, soaring over a vault, Simone Biles realized she had lost her way.
She came into the Olympics as the United States’ star, expected to bring home gold medals and to fulfill the obligations of a global celebrity. The weight of her past success loomed over her. Fans expected her to be spectacular and perfect, even here at the Tokyo Games in a pandemic and without spectators.
And she was feeling far from perfect. On Tuesday, she said she began “fighting all of those demons” and couldn’t hold them back. In this, perhaps her final Olympics after having won four golds at the 2016 Games, she wondered why she was even here.
When she twisted fewer times than she had planned in the vault, she knew she was not herself, having lost her usually uncanny sense of where her body is in the air and failing to complete the kind of daring skill she is known for.
Biles, the most decorated gymnast in the world, walked off the mat and left the competition, saying she was not mentally prepared to continue. She said later that she was not certain she would compete again at the Tokyo Games. In her absence, the Russian team surged to the gold medal. The Americans held on for silver.
Biles’s withdrawal was a stunning turnabout for the Americans, who won team gold at every world championships and Olympics since 2010, and it came hours after another superstar athlete, Naomi Osaka, was upset in the third round of the women’s singles tennis tournament by a player with a far lower ranking.
Biles said after the competition that she had hoped to compete for herself, but “felt like I was still doing it for other people.” She added, “So that just, like, hurts my heart, because doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”
Osaka, too, spoke of buckling under the high demands of the Olympic stage, having lit the Olympic cauldron and carried the expectation of her home country, Japan, that she win gold. “The scale of everything is a bit hard,” she said.
It would have been unimaginable only a few years ago for an Olympic athlete to admit to significant doubts during the Games, much less to withdraw from an event. But Biles, Osaka and others in their generation have been vocal about putting their mental health first and the expectations of others, at best, second.
Even in normal times, Olympic competition can be emotionally fraught for athletes, some just teenagers, who wear their nations’ flags and carry the hopes of countless supporters as they perform for a worldwide audience. The postponement of the Games last year increased the tension by causing what athletes loathe — a change in routine.
“You pace yourself, you know the fourth year is the Olympic year,” said Steven Ungerleider, a sports psychologist from Eugene, Ore. “You psychologically and emotionally and physically gear up and all of a sudden someone pulls the plug and you sit around biting your nails, ‘I have to wait another year.’ A lot of anxiety builds up.”
And at the Tokyo Games, there is a lack of supportive energy from the largely empty arenas. “You feed off that,” Ungerleider said.
The American Nyjah Huston, the biggest name in contest skateboarding, was also a gold medal favorite. But he finished seventh in Sunday’s street competition, later saying in an Instagram post that he had “never felt so much pressure.”
He added: “I’m sorry. I know I definitely let some people down. I have no problem admitting that, but I’m human.”
Biles said she came to the Olympics “feeling pretty good,” yet was dealing with some issues that grew tougher by the day. Therapy and medications usually work, she explained, but even then high stress situations can cause her to “really freak out” because she doesn’t know how to handle the battery of emotions.
Four or five years ago, Biles said, she would have suffered through the competition despite being in mental turmoil, even chancing a serious injury. But not this time. She is older and smarter, and realizes there is more to life than gymnastics.
“Today it’s like, you know what, no, I don’t want to do something stupid and get hurt,” she said. “And it’s just not worth it, especially when you have three amazing athletes that can step up to the plate and do it. Not worth it.”
That two of the world’s biggest sports stars — Biles and Osaka — struggled on the same day on the same stage shocked many, but not the stars themselves.
For Biles, who had watched the documentary Osaka produced about herself and her mental health, it was simply a matter of finding the resolve to save herself.
“At the end of the day, we’re human, too, so we have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,” she said. “With the year that it’s been, I’m really not surprised how it played out.”
Ungerleider said Biles has borne the stress of being the face of the Games for NBC; of talking about her abuse at the hands of a former U.S.A. Gymnastics team doctor, Lawrence G. Nassar; and of trying to manage her sponsor obligations while preparing for the Olympics.
“She’s wearing a lot of hats,” Ungerleider said. “Most athletes don’t go to the Olympics being a diplomat at the same time trying to be a focused athlete. She’s got a lot of weight on her shoulders. For any person, especially a 24-year-old, that’s a huge burden.”
Biles told her teammates that she was not in the right “head space” to continue the team event and didn’t want to cost them a medal. They cried out of worry and sadness. Yet they understood because, as their teammate Jordan Chiles said, “We’ve all gone through it ourselves.”
Besides, they would not have gotten that far in the team competition without her, the best gymnast alive. They were glad that Biles, who has more international medals than any other gymnast and who even has her own GOAT, or “greatest of all time,” emoji, returned to the floor to cheer them on.
“It was very emotional losing someone so important to the team,” another teammate, Sunisa Lee, said, explaining that Biles has been her inspiration. “I feel like these Olympic Games were kind of hers.”
Biles’s teammates ended up competing on the final three apparatuses, some of the gymnasts without even warming up or expecting to perform in those events, but they managed to win a silver medal, anyway. They stood together after the long night, giving each other compliments about what they had done. Kudos to you, Simone, for being so brave and doing the right thing to stay healthy, they told her.
“We did this for ourselves,” Chiles said. “But we also did this for her.”
No, kudos to you for powering through without me, Biles said to them. “They’re silver medalists,” she said. “So it’s something they should be very proud of because they did it without me.”
The Russian team finished with a total score of 169.528, more than three points ahead of the United States’ 166.096. Britain won the bronze medal with a score of 164.096. With its win, Russia ended the dominant grip that the American team had held for years.
Russia had surprised the Americans in qualifying on Sunday, issuing a threat to the U.S. team’s unchallenged success in the sport.
The last time the United States lost a team final in the Olympics or in a world championship was in 2010, to Russia. Since then, the United States has been far ahead of the world in the sport, winning world championships and Olympics by wide margins.
The U.S. team in Tokyo did what it could to preserve its legacy. But without Biles, the Americans could not keep up. They appeared to have a chance at gold going into the final event, the floor exercise, though, and were only eight-tenths out of first. An untimely fall by Chiles, who slipped and landed on her rear on one of her tumbling passes, gave her a score of just 11.7 points, putting the Russians securely in the lead for good.
One day after the Russian men won the Olympic gold team medal, the Russian women executed their challenging routines with precision and grace as the Americans tried to regroup without Biles.
During qualification on Sunday, there were hints that Biles wasn’t her usual self. She stumbled on her balance beam dismount, grimacing as she walked off the floor. On the floor exercise, she stepped so far out of bounds that she slid down the edge of the slanted, raised competition surface. On vault, she stepped off the mat after landing. It was the first time she did not have her parents in the stands for support.
The next day, she posted a note on her Facebook page: “I truly do feel that I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t effect me, but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The Olympics are no joke!”
John Branch contributed from Tokyo, and Jeré Longman from Philadelphia.