Is it normal for athletes to bow out of the Olympics?

Updated August 10, 2021 | Infoplease Staff

The Question:

It was a huge deal when Simone Biles said she wasn't going to participate in her event (which I guess she participated anyway?) But, is it actually that weird? Surely athletes bow out all the time. Explain it.

The Answer:

Simone Biles publicly backed out of competing in the team gymnastics event, citing health reasons. She then participated in a different, later event. Dropping out of Olympics events isn't super common, in the sense that most Olympic teams won't have a whole bevy of backups lying around just in case. But, it happens more often than you'd think.

Injuries and illness are a part of every major international sporting event. The 2020 Olympics (held in 2021) were exceptional due to the pandemic, which forced many athletes to bow out over health concerns. But, although many stayed away for their physical health, plenty bowed out for personal reasons. Sofia Kenin, a US Tennis Player, didn't participate on the basis that she wouldn't be participating as she wouldn't be able to bring along anyone for companionship. Tennis superstar Serena Williams indicated that she wouldn't be comfortable leaving behind her 3 year old daughter. Several others cited a need to attend their mental health.

These kinds of things don't tend to attract excessive media attention. There is only sparse records of dropouts in previous games, and the 2020 coverage largely focused on the broader issue of COVID rather than more personal reasons for bowing out. 

Part of what made Simone Biles's case stand out is that she's just such a superstar. Biles is the undisputed top gymnast in the world, and many expected her to lead the US gymnastics team to dominate. The team won Silver, rather than Gold. The other element is that her decision to back down was a bit last minute, in that she was present on the sidelines cheering for her team during the particular event. 

A bit more cynically, the reason Simone Biles's case was such an event was that she decided to bow out of the event to tend to her mental health, rather than a physical injury. Sports coverage lauds playing through injuries and pain. Bowing out at all, when otherwise considered excellent at her sport, would be held against her. Since many people don't consider mental illness as comparable to physical illness, the criticism was extra harsh. 

-The Editors

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