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The tragic story of Elena Mukhina, the gymnast who wasn’t allowed to say 'no' like Simone Biles.

This week, four-time Olympic champion and golden girl of Team USA Simone Biles pulled out of the 2021 Olympics. The move shocked the world.

Biles had walked into Tokyo being called the “greatest gymnast of all time,” carrying the hopes and dreams of her country on her back. The expectation was huge.

Watch: Susie O'Neill on her 'failure' at the Sydney Olympics. Post continues below.


Video via Mamaia

However, in Tuesday's Olympic women's gymnastics team final, thousands of people watched on as Biles lost her bearings in the middle of a vault, grimacing as she shakily landed on her feet.

She later reappeared on the sideline to support her fellow teammates, but not to compete. USA Gymnastics released a statement confirming she had withdrawn with a "medical issue".

Along with an outpouring of support for the 24-year-old's decision, there was one question on everyone's lips:

"Why did Simone Biles quit?"

While there was speculation as to whether Biles had obtained a physical injury, the athlete later shared that her decision was one that was based on mental health.

Listen: One of the most famous athletes in the world has made headlines everywhere, after pulling out of the women’s team gymnastics final in Tokyo. So why did Simone Biles quit? Post continues below.

"Physically, I feel good, I'm in shape," she told the US Today Show. "Emotionally, that kind of varies on the time and moment. Coming to the Olympics and being head star isn't an easy feat, so we're just trying to take it one day at a time and we'll see."

In a post-finals press conference alongside her teammates, she said: "Whenever you get in a high-stress situation, you kind of freak out. I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardise my health and well-being," she said.

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"We have to protect our body and our mind… It just sucks when you're fighting with your own head."

Image: Getty 

While Biles received widespread praise for admitting her mental health issues and opening up a conversation in a sport that is strewn with a history of life-altering or life-ending injuries, others were quick to dismiss Biles' explanation.

One person who wasn't impressed by the headlines was controversial TV personality Piers Morgan, who called Biles' decision to withdraw a “joke".

In an article for Daily Mail, he urged Biles to "get back out there Simone, and don’t get sucked into all the weak woke failure-loving Twitter nonsense ― you’re too great a champion to be labelled a quitter."

On Twitter, Morgan further trashed the mental health reasoning behind her departure.

“Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport? What a joke,” he wrote. 

“Just admit you did badly, made mistakes, and will strive to do better next time. Kids need strong role models not this nonsense.”

The tweet sparked an insane backlash, with people slamming Morgan for his comments.

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"We don’t need people like you making snide comments like this and adding to the stigma. You’re part of the problem," one person wrote.

But Morgan hit back, tweeting: "Athletes are now deemed more courageous, inspiring & heroic if they lose or quit then if they win or tough it out, which is ridiculous."

“I blame Twitter’s virtue-signallers for fuelling this culture of celebrating weakness. The real world doesn’t think like that.”  

Other critics mocked Biles and compared her to Kerri Strug, who famously vaulted on an injured ankle for the United States at the 1996 Olympics, winning a gold medal. They suggested this was something that Biles should have done for her team - pushed through the pain.

However, unlike the popular narrative - Strug performed that vault under pressure from her coach, injuring her ankle further. As for the gold medal? The team would have won without her. Strug never competed again.

Among the negativity, Strug tweeted a message of support for Biles' decision - her own story proving just how important it was for Biles to step back.

The fact is that gymnastics is an extremely dangerous sport, and one that involves a great risk of injury - even when a gymnast is in peak health. 

The slightest lapse - whether it be physical or mental - can be life changing, sometimes even fatal.

So, for an athlete to know when something is increasing that risk, is significant. 

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Image: Getty 

However, until now, it has almost been unheard of for any high-level gymnast to withdraw from competition for health reasons.

Take Elena Mukhina for example. 

Unlike Simone Biles, Mukhina is the tragic example of what happens when you're not allowed to say no. Of what happens when you push someone to compete through injury. And it's tragic.

Mukhina, a 20-year-old Soviet gymnast, was encouraged to train on a broken leg in the lead up to the 1980 Olympics.

She recalled later in an interview with the Russian magazine Ogoniok, "They removed the cast and I was walking crookedly. They took an X-ray, and it turned out that the bones had separated. I was on the operating table right after lunch. My coach came the next day and said that I wasn't conscientious and that I could train in a cast."

Image: Getty 

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As a rising star, everyone had their eyes on her for the coming Olympic games, something Mukhina said pressured her into pushing through her injury.

"I was stupid. I really wanted to justify the trust put in me and be a heroine... I was so tired then, both physically and psychologically."

Less than a month before the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Mukhina was asked by a coach of the national team to do the Thomas Salto - a move that is so dangerous it is now banned.  

After voicing her concern that she would break her neck attempting the move, the coach dismissed her.

Mukhina performed the move, falling on her chin and crushing her cervical vertebrae. 

She was permanently paralysed 

Image: Getty 

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The moment she fell to the floor, Mukhina described her first thought as, "Thank God, I won't be going to the Olympics."

But the nightmare and the pain wasn't over. What followed was months, turned years, of cover-ups. 

The Soviet Union saw Mukhina's injury as creating a poor image of the Soviet program, reflecting just how little consideration they gave to the wellbeing of their athletes. Worst of all, it showed their institution was flawed.

So, they decided to focus on a strategy to help suppress the fallout, one that would help them find a way to separate themselves from the blame of Mukhina's crippling injuries.

The Soviet Union downplayed the severity of Mukhina’s injury, withheld information as to how she obtained her injuries and even went as far as to discredit her for inflicting the injury on herself.

After the incident, Mukhina told Ogoniok about how fans wrote to her asking when she would compete again.

“The fans had been trained to believe in athletes’ heroism — athletes with fractures return to the soccer field and those with concussions return to the ice rink,” she said. “Why?”

Image: Getty 

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"Even though athletes get to travel and see so much, they are terribly deprived spiritually. Work, work, work. Nothing exists except work and pressure, which constantly increase, and sometimes it seems that that's it, you haven't got any more strength. But my coach once told me, 'Until you break, no one will let you go.'"

Mukhina died in 2006, at the age of 46, from complications of quadriplegia.

The sad reality is that Mukhina's fate isn't unlike many others - women's gymnastics is scattered with strikingly similar stories. 

There's a string of high-level gymnasts who have been met with disfiguring, life-altering or life-threatening injuries after being pressured to perform in an element when they knew the risk was too high.

For Biles, her refusal to be another number could very well be the most important move of her life.

What are your thoughts on Simone Biles withdrawing from the Olympics? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Feature image: Getty

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