TOKYO (AP) — In a way, the massive upheaval that upended the U.S. Olympic world over the past five years was designed for the sort of moment Simone Biles faced.
Not long after Biles withdrew from the gymnastics team final Tuesday night, the leader of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee said she was convinced as ever that changes geared toward a sharper focus on the overall health of athletes — not just the medals they win — have been worth it.
Sarah Hirshland, the CEO of the USOPC, told The Associated Press if a new atmosphere the federation has tried to create played any small part in offering comfort to Biles as she wrestled with what to do, “then I’m thrilled that it was a safe enough space for her to make that decision."
“Whether it's our organization, the changes at (USA Gymnastics) or whether it's because it's a conversation that’s been happening in society and in the athlete community overall, it’s positive,” Hirshland said.
Biles said she pulled out of Tuesday's meet because “I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and my well-being."
Hirshland came aboard at the USOPC in 2018, shortly after details emerged about former gymnastics coach Larry Nassar's abuse of dozens of athletes over the span of decades. USA Gymnastics underwent a thorough housecleaning, starting with its top executives and including national team coordinator Marta Karolyi.
The USOPC also underwent massive change: The positions of board chair, CEO and sports performance director all changed hands. The federation has been overhauling everything from its mission statement to the way it allocates resources. The COVID-19 pandemic that postponed the Tokyo Games by a year only served to heighten the focus on athlete well-being. One key part of the USOPC overhaul included its increased emphasis on mental health counseling.
“We're deploying every resource that’s available to her, and we want to give her space to make choices that are going to be right for her,” Hirshland said of Biles. “We can't know the answer because none of us live in her shoes.”
On Wednesday afternoon in Tokyo, Biles withdrew from the women's all-around, giving up the chance to defend the coveted title. She has not decided if she will compete in the event finals scheduled later in the week.
Her decision to pull out of the team final almost certainly turned a gold medal into a silver for the U.S. team. What she does next will impact the U.S. medal haul. She had been expected to win as many four golds in the individual events.
None of that matters, Hirshland insists.
“These are not the USOPC's medals, these are the athletes' medals," she said. "We can't lose site of that. They make these choices. They do the work. They perform, and we are simply here to create an environment in which they can be successful.”
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