Mike Rowbottom

Of course the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award - which went last night to American gymnast Simone Biles - is about longevity of performance.

But while this choice marked the achievements one of the most spectacularly bemedaled gymnasts of all time - this 24-year-old from Colombus in Ohio already owns four Olympic and 19 world golds - it also honoured her, as it were, all-around performance in 2021.

In podium terms, Biles was part of the United States team that took silver at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and she earned bronze in the beam final.

But it was her contribution outside the arena of competition, and indeed her explanation of why she felt largely unable to enter that arena at the Games, that this award partly acknowledges.

Ripples went through the sporting world when the four-time champion of Rio dropped out of the team final in Tokyo after taking a first, clearly sub-par vault, saying: "I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardise my health and well-being. That's why I decided to take a step back."

Biles had been publicly hesitant about pushing on to compete at these Games once the pandemic had caused them to be postponed by 12 months and said after helping the team to reach the final that she was feeling the "weight of the world on my shoulders".

She subsequently withdrew from the defence of her all-around title from Rio, and skipped all but one of the individual event finals. Biles said she regarded that beam bronze as her most meaningful medal, as it symbolised her perseverance in the face of mental health struggles.

Little more than a month after the Tokyo 2020 Games, Biles, who in 2018 confirmed that she had been one of the many young gymnasts to have been sexually assaulted by the then USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar, joined others in offering evidence to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing into the handling of the case.

Nassar is now imprisoned for life without parole for a range of sexual offences.

Some commentators criticised Biles, accusing her of being a "quitter" at the Tokyo 2020 Games or of selfishly depriving another athlete of the chance to compete. She also received racist and sexist criticism on social and some mainstream media. But as she made clear in her recorded acceptance speech, there was also much comfort for her on social media.

"This is an unbelievable honour and to receive it is truly humbling," said Biles. "When I see those names that have been honoured before me I can hardly believe it.   

"2021 wasn’t quite the year I was expecting. This summer I had to take a step back from competition to recover from an invisible injury. This was the hardest decision of my life.

"But I chose to speak out to show mental health struggles are nothing to be ashamed of.

"I was expecting some kind of criticism at first, but what happened was the complete opposite. The support and encouragement I received was overwhelming and it fills my heart to think of those positive words…

"I am so grateful to everyone in the UK who sent such supportive and loving messages to me at that time. What I will always treasure, more than any medal, is hearing how I may have helped someone feel a little better.

"I will carry on fighting for what I believe in. For sport to be a safe place for young people to grow and flourish, and I will continue to speak up about mental health.

"Thank you again for this truly wonderful honour, and what it represents."

A month after her return from Tokyo 2020, where she struggled to perform, Simone Biles was among gymnasts giving evidence to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal ©Getty Images
A month after her return from Tokyo 2020, where she struggled to perform, Simone Biles was among gymnasts giving evidence to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal ©Getty Images

Those comments by Biles about helping someone to feel better echoed the thoughts recently expressed by her fellow American athlete Deja Young-Craddock, whose competitive record also paralleled hers as she earned an individual sprint bronze at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, having won double gold in Rio.

Young-Craddock's achievements have also happened with a background of mental health issues - she had a suicide attempt in May 2016 but recovered her equilibrium sufficiently to compete at that year's Paralympics.

"I ended up going to Rio in 2016 and did great there," Young-Craddock said earlier this month in a TrueSport discussion organised by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

"And in 2017 I decided to come out with my story because I needed to be the person I needed when I was struggling. I wanted to be able to help prevent what was going on, and I always said if I could save a life that would mean more to me than a medal."

Young-Craddock was also eloquent on the vexed subject of social media.

"I’m not a big fan," she said. "I need to do all these extra things and I don't like doing it. It's become kids' lives - palm of their hand, right there, 24-7. Kind of sad.

"See all these perfect people. Perfect bodies, happy moments. Then people are maybe thinking: 'I want to have that body, how are they achieving that?’ You don’t always see the angles pictures are taken at…

"I just turn it off when I want to. Social media is not real. Pictures speak a thousand words but you need to know what the back-story is.

"You can’t take it serious and let it consume you. Stepping away is okay. There are so many things going on in the world. Just because you are stepping away from social media doesn't mean you don't care - it's for your own benefit."

Double Paralympic sprint champion Deja Young-Craddock, speaking at a USADA event concerning mental health, said
Double Paralympic sprint champion Deja Young-Craddock, speaking at a USADA event concerning mental health, said "stepping away from social media is okay" ©USADA

World 200 metres champion and Tokyo 2020 bronze medallist Noah Lyles, sitting alongside Young-Craddock in the discussion, added his own view on social media.

"Some people see it as their identity. It can be very stressful - but I am heavily invested in social media. I have a lot of sponsors and I use social media to show how well I am performing. It is a big part of my business.

"But in the last couple of years it has become very stressful in terms of how much you were seeing - especially when you are hearing all this news about the Olympics being postponed and people being killed in the streets more often.

"It’s one thing to know it’s happening but it's another thing to see it. And gosh, that really hits hard, it almost puts you in a disbelief state. You can’t even watch any more… I had to come off social media for quite a long period of time.

"I'm now at the point where I don’t have Instagram and Twitter in my home screen. I have to deliberately search for them - I try to make it hard to reach."

Social media, Lyles said, is "a tool and like any tool it can be used for good or for bad", but that his focus if the former.

"I try to use that tool for good but it can definitely hurt," Lyles added. "Quite a few times when I’ve gone on social media and posted a few training videos and whatnot and out of a hundred great comments you see one that says - 'I don't even know why you are even training, you're never going to break the world record.'

"I'm like - 'I just wanted to show my running and my practice, just wanted to share it with you all!'

"You can have that one comment that messes up all the hundred comments that you saw and raised - you could only see that one. It’s very hard to get into the mindset of, 'That's somebody’s opinion'. You can’t change their opinion. Or maybe you can - but how’s that going to help you?

"You have to be confident within yourself to know that their comment does not define you as a person.

"Deja’s comment that you don’t know the story behind a lot of pictures – that’s very true. I go on TikTok now and I see the before-and-afters of how easy it is to use apps for photoshopping and I’m like - 'That should be illegal!' So you have to be smart about how you navigate it."

Sochi 2014 figure skating bronze medallist Gracie Gold has compared obsessing over social media to overtraining - leading to mental, as opposed to physical, injury ©USADA
Sochi 2014 figure skating bronze medallist Gracie Gold has compared obsessing over social media to overtraining - leading to mental, as opposed to physical, injury ©USADA

Lyles also lightheartedly highlighted the warning signs of dependency on the medium. 

"If it’s the fifth time in the last three minutes you’ve been looking for someone to reply to your comment because your validation is coming from how many likes you get saying 'This a great comment!' Five minutes later - still zero! 'I’m going to make another tweet!' What is that tweet going to do? Another zero…"

Reflecting on her own experience with social media, the third athlete involved in the TrueSport mental health discussion, Sochi 2014 figure skating bronze medallist Gracie Gold pointed out a red flag.

"When you find yourself doubling down on every tweet comment - we’ve all been there - then it’s a red flag," said Gold.

"It’s like doing too much training - that how people get injured.

"The other thing about when you are reading rude comments is that it becomes worse because you read it in your own voice - it sounds like your own voice.

"'You were better when you were younger.' At 26 I am really geriatric in this sport, and that’s one of my fears. And I read it with my own voice…

"I read it. It hurts, I feel bad about it. No one would walk up to me and say that to my face. And if they did it wouldn’t harm me the same as if I read it and it’s in my own voice.

"I turn notifications off immediately. I'm not on Twitter any more. During difficult times I step away from it.

"At times it had got to the point where someone tweeting a sentence or two about me was altering my whole day and how I was going to do my training. So I thought - 'Let’s take a break.'"

Gold also echoed her fellow athletes' concerns over what she described as "comparing your everyday life to someone’s meticulously created highlight reel."

But she added: "I do think there is a trend now in social media of content that's more real. I think that’s a great and beautiful thing and I think social media is going to be a more positive place because of it..."

No doubt to be further discussed...