Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the women’s gymnastics team competition and four individual events, citing mental health struggles, was met with immediate support from her sponsors. The public has her back as well.
Sportico surveyed more than 2,000 Americans in a partnership with Harris Poll and found that, of those who had an opinion on Biles’ decision, 84% agreed that she made the right one. Despite some dissent, support was shared by an overwhelming majority of people across age and race demographics, in addition to both political parties.
As athletes such as Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka brought mental health issues to light this summer, most of the general public is already on board. 87% of Americans believe that a mental health illness qualifies as a medical issue or injury, and 89% view mental health concerns as either equal or more serious than physical injuries. Three-fifths (60%) agree that Olympic athletes are pushed too far physically and mentally.
Interviews in the past week have revealed that Biles suffered from a condition known to gymnasts as “the twisties,” meaning a loss of spatial awareness in midair. She would have been unlikely to be able to perform at a high level, as evidenced by her shaky vault in the team competition. Furthermore, she could have risked serious physical injury by continuing to compete.
Despite these facts, there seems to be a disconnect between public support for Biles’ decision and an understanding of the effects that mental health can have on an athlete’s performance. 42% of Americans who were aware of Biles’ decision, including more than half of such men, say that Biles failed her team by withdrawing.
Still, very few Americans believe that Biles made the wrong choice to prioritize her health. The public was, however, far more split on other Olympics-related issues about which Sportico polled.
Before Biles became the hot topic of Team USA, sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was in the spotlight last month, when she was banned from participating in the 100-meter dash in Tokyo after a failed marijuana test. Even though her ban only lasted 30 days, which would have left her eligible for the 4x100-meter relay, she was not selected to compete for Team USA.
Two-thirds (67%) of those with an opinion say Sha’Carri Richardson should have been chosen for the team. On the broader issue of her suspension, however, the public is slightly less forgiving. Only a slight majority (52%) of Americans agree that marijuana should not be on the prohibited substance list for Olympic athletes, while 32% disagree and 15% have no opinion.
People are even more divided on whether transgender athletes should be allowed to compete in the Olympics according to their gender identity. This week, Quinn, a midfielder for Canada’s women’s soccer team, became the first non-binary athlete to win an Olympic medal when Canada won its semifinal match. Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand became the first transgender athlete to compete in the Games but fell short of the medal round.
Democrats are nearly twice as likely as Republicans to agree on Hubbard’s eligibility (56% vs. 30%). Overall, only 40% of Americans agree that she should be able to compete as a woman, whereas 43% disagree.
Transgender participation isn’t the only IOC rule under scrutiny in Tokyo. U.S. shot putter Raven Saunders became the first athlete to risk breaking protocol by peacefully protesting from the medal podium last Saturday. While receiving her silver medal, Saunders raised her arms and crossed them into an X shape to represent “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”
Half of Americans (49%) agree that athletes should be able to peacefully protest at the podium, but 37% disagree, and the majority of that group disagree strongly. As expected, the issue is highly politicized; 64% of Democrats support individual demonstrations, compared to just 35% of Republicans.
On the issues of marijuana, transgender athletes and individual protests, there also exists a significant generational divide. While older people tend to be more conservative, age is in fact an equal or greater predictor of opinion on each subject than political party. For instance, the percentage of Millennials who support athletes peacefully protesting is twice that of Boomers (64% vs. 32%).
In contrast, Americans are more universally supportive of a country-wide protest, with 53%—including 57% of Republicans and 51% of Boomers—agreeing that the U.S. should consider a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics due to human rights violations in China, versus just 23% who disagree. Only one-tenth of Americans “strongly disagree” with the idea.
Most sports fans understandably have their minds set on Tokyo right now, but the upcoming Winter Olympics are set to start in less than six months. While a boycott has been discussed by lawmakers, news has been quiet on that front during the Summer Games.