In choosing to be honest, Simone Biles showed us what a champion looks like – by Dan Tapper

This opinion piece from Dan Tapper originally appeared in the Hartford Courant on August 2, 2021. To view the article on the Hartford Courant’s website, click here.

That Simone Biles is one of the greatest athletes in the history of the Olympic Games is a given.

But the other day, when she all but stopped the world in its tracks with her decision to withdraw from the team gymnastics competition at the Tokyo games for self-described mental health reasons, she emerged as a different type of champion — one for self-awareness, truth and unflappable honesty.

Such traits are not always a given in our modern world riddled with half-truths, “if-pologies” and almost relentless spin, which often tries to tell us we are not seeing what we are clearly seeing. And from a public relations standpoint, the integrity Ms. Biles showed by standing up and telling the truth — regardless of how people may react — was incredibly refreshing.

The first rule of strategic communications is to tell the truth, always and forever. That applied in an era before social media and the 24/7 news cycle, and it applies now when we can watch anything in real time and, just as quickly, watch people opine on it in the same real time. It’s a simple rule, yet one that people at the highest levels of their professions sometimes have a hard time adhering to.

We’ve seen coaches lose their jobs for lack of honesty and transparency, and we’ve seen the same with CEOs and heads of industry. It’s not usually the initial crisis that can topple a career, but how you communicate in the wake of that crisis and whether you choose to do so honestly.

A 24-year-old Olympic champion, possibly the most recognizable athlete in the world and someone who has been living in a bubble of nonstop media and social media scrutiny, faced such a crisis last week during an event for which she has waited five years to compete, an event she has trained for all of her life, in a sport that has made her world-famous and admired around the globe.

And when she flipped over the vault with a deeply concerning look that she was, as more than one commentator put it, “lost in the air,” she was clearly in crisis. And when she left for the training room, we wondered what the news was, what the story was.

So then Simone Biles came out, with the entire world watching and with a level of pressure on her that most of us can only imagine, and she told the truth. The hard and remarkably honest truth.

“Whenever you get in a high stress situation, you kind of freak out. I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being. It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”

From a human standpoint we can and should admire her self-awareness and courage, to come out — as other athletes like Naomi Osaka and Kevin Love have done in recent times — and talk about mental health and the struggles she is having.

But from an integrity standpoint, where honesty in communication is still very real and very needed, all we should say is, “Well done!”

Simone Biles was honest with herself and honest with the world, and like her sensational gymnastics career, she did it with effortless grace and remarkable strength. So much so that it makes us think that she will be more than OK, but that she will continue to succeed and thrive in her life, no matter how much she competes in the gymnastics arena again. And perhaps her honesty will inspire others in the spotlight, perhaps others who are privately living in pain while publicly trying to put on a brave face, to come forward. That would indeed be one more lasting gift.

Thank you, Ms. Biles. Once more, you stuck the landing.

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