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Simone Biles Highlights The Unique Stresses Athletes Feel At The Tokyo Olympics

Simone Biles reacts during the artistic gymnastics women's team final Tuesday at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre during the Tokyo Games.
Simone Biles reacts during the artistic gymnastics women's team final Tuesday at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre during the Tokyo Games.

Star gymnast Simone Biles cited her mental health concerns for withdrawing from the individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympics. "It's been a long Olympic process, it's been a long year," she told reporters after she stopped competing in the team event. "And I think we're just a little bit too stressed out."

Biles' teammates applauded her decision to take care of her mental well-being. But she's not the only athlete who has talked about the pressures of performing at the Games.

After winning gold in the 1,500-meter freestyle event, swimmer Katie Ledecky broke down in tears. The six-time Olympic champion told reporters that while competing she choked up with every stroke, thinking about her grandparents. Ledecky said she understands some of what Biles is going through.

"Simone has so many eyes on her," she told reporters. "The cameras follow you around, and you can feel like a lot of people are watching you, and every move you make is being watched and judged."

The IOC is making mental health services available in Tokyo

Even before this week, the organizers of the Games said they prepared to help athletes cope. The International Olympic Committee brought in mental health officers for athletes and coaches to Tokyo. There is a 24/7 help line for them, and at the Olympic Village, where the athletes are staying, there are psychiatrists and psychologists.

The American athletes also have their own group of experts ready to help the athletes through crises.

"It's been really stressful with COVID and the protocols; we have a number of athletes who've been caught up either with COVID or contact tracing," says Jess Bartley, director of mental health services for Team USA. "The protocols in general can be kind of isolating. It's a very different experience at the Games."

Bartley said there are many stresses at the Olympics — for example, "If you didn't compete as expected or you're trying to balance performance with just life. "

Bartley said the American team has a website filled with resources, an anonymous mental health support line and a 50-page mental health emergency action plan for dealing with issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse.

Bartley said she and her support team based in the U.S. are ready to help identify the issues that coaches may see with struggling athletes: "understanding what comes up if there is a quarantine, what comes up if somebody doesn't perform and now their family's back home versus being here to support them," she says. "So it's just being able to meet the athletes where they are and understand what they need in the moment."

Bartley said her team is sharing resources with others at the Games.

"We've kind of joked with some of the other countries that this is one place we don't have to be as competitive. And so we've shared our emergency action plan widely."

The American team is also prepping athletes for post-Olympic blues and other challenges when they leave Tokyo.

Athletes don't have the in-person support they're used to

Besides the pressure to be the best in the world at their sport and the pandemic, there's also no spectators allowed to watch the Tokyo Olympics in person. There are no family members to hug after they win, no friends or fans cheering from the stands.

Fans from around the world have been recording videos, TikTok and Instagram messages to the athletes. During the competitions, fan videos are shown on big screens in the otherwise empty stands.

After the events, athletes can step up to the cameras to greet fans online. The IOC said all these interactions have been wildly popular, especially in India, the U.S. and Japan.

But officials acknowledged it's not the same as having those cheering fans at the Olympics.

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