There was something inevitable about Piers Morgan’s response to Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw (temporarily) from the 2020 Olympics on mental health grounds.


Biles’ ‘greatest move’ is her ability to put herself first

Biles later rejoined the competition and went on to win a bronze medal.  

But before this, writing for the Mail Online, Morgan accused Biles of being ‘selfish’ and stated: ‘I don’t think it is remotely courageous, heroic or inspiring to quit’. He also suggested that she had pulled out, not because she was struggling with her mental health, but because she had underperformed in her first exercise. Morgan has a steady track record of not giving people the benefit of the doubt. Earlier this year, he mocked and cast doubt on Meghan Markle when she spoke openly about her mental health struggles. Brendan O’Neill, Editor of Spiked, was similarly dismissive of Biles, arguing that: ‘the current celebration of her quitting the Olympics as “true heroism”… feels deeply troubling’.

Firstly, it is laughable for Morgan and O’Neill to imply that Biles was somehow weak, or lacking determination. The 24-year-old American gymnast is arguably one of the greatest athletes of her generation. She was the most decorated gymnast of all time by the age of 22. She has won 25 world championship medals, and four Olympic gold medals. She even has a gymnastics move named after her, called the ‘Biles Vault’.

But the star gymnast didn’t have the easiest start in life. Her early years were spent in foster care after her biological mother was unable to look after her children, having struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. Biles has even spoken about going hungry as a child. But despite the setbacks, she has demonstrated a remarkable ability to succeed in the face of adversity. The criticisms waged by Morgan and O’Neill, arguably pale in comparison to this athlete’s tough past.

Generation’Snowflake’?

None of this seems to matter, however, to the likes of Morgan and O’Neill. For them, the mental health crisis seems to be another example of ‘snowflakery’. O’Neill has explicitly said as much. A few years ago he complained that young people are ‘being told it’s cool not to be able to cope, to embrace the identity of fragility’ and that ‘we shouldn’t ditch the stiff-upper-lip; we should rehabilitate it’.  To the likes of O’Neill and Morgan, mental illness is clearly a sign of weakness and yet another example of ‘generation snowflake’ being unable to cope with the harsh realities of the real world.  

In one respect they are right; athletes and other public figures have been increasingly vociferous about their mental health issues. Recently, the Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open, citing mental health as her reason for doing so. It is also true that more and more people are claiming to struggle with mental health issues more generally, especially the young. Since lockdown, mental health referrals amongst young people doubled in England. But cases have been rising even before the pandemic. In 2018, a study found that the proportion of young people saying they had a mental illness had increased sixfold over two decades.

There are many reasons why more people might have been complaining of mental health problems in recent years, especially those in the public eye such as Biles and Osaka. One obvious explanation is social media. Almost anyone, anywhere in the world can be abusive about you on platforms like Twitter and Instagram. We saw this in the aftermath of England’s defeat in the Euro 2020 final, when three black players were subjected to torrents of racist abuse online. These people may be public figures, but they are also human and therefore not impervious to cruelty and verbal assault. Such things leave scars that can later trigger or exacerbate existing mental health concerns. Therefore, for someone like Biles, a nerve-wracking experience of competing at the Olympics could be made even worse knowing what some people might say about her if she performed poorly — especially if she already felt that she was not in the right frame of mind to perform her complex and dangerous routines on global television. It has since been revealed that her aunt died unexpectedly during the tournament, adding pressure to an already fragile mental state.

Lingering stigma

It is also quite possible that, as the stigma around mental illness has lifted in recent decades, more people have felt confident enough to speak openly and candidly about their struggles.

Neither Piers Morgan, nor Brendan O’Neill, nor any of the other culture warriors are experts in this field. To my knowledge, neither of them have any qualifications in medicine or psychology. We should be listening to the people who do, rather than those who continue to stigmatize and prosecute individuals for showing mental health ailments.

Simone Biles has revealed that she was experiencing something known as ‘the twisties’. This is when gymnasts lose their sense of control and bearing while in mid-air. Performing a complex set of moves without being able to spacially plant your landing could result in serious injury and worse. It was the right call for Biles to put her physical and mental health first.

On Good Morning Britain, Dr Amir Khan praised Simone Biles for being open about her struggles. Further, he confirmed that many of his patients who experience physical symptoms such as fatigue and chronic pain are actually suffering from psychological issues such as depression and anxiety.

During the pandemic, we have (mostly) put our faith in experts. It’s time that we listened to the experts on mental health as well — rather than attention-seeking, outrage merchants like Piers Morgan. This should include considering how the world has changed, and how the challenges of the modern world (especially social media), might impact people’s ability to cope with stress.