The 2020 Summer Olympics lost two of its biggest stars in a span of hours on Tuesday when tennis ace Naomi Osaka lost her third-round match to former French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova, and Simon Biles, widely considered the greatest gymnast of all time, exited the team finals competition after landing her vault.
“I felt like it would be a little bit better to take a back seat, work on my mindfulness, and I knew the girls would do a great job,” said Biles in her post-event press conference. “I didn’t want to risk the team a medal for my screw ups.”
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She confirmed that she does not have any injury. “It’s been really stressful this Olympic Games,” she said. “It’s been a long week; it’s been a long Olympic process; it’s been a long year. A lot of different variables. I think we’re just a little too stressed out, but we should be out here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case.”
Biles could still return for the all-around final on Thursday and event finals later during the Games. The U.S. finished second to the Russian Olympic Committee with Biles on the sidelines.
“It’s more potential headwinds losing flagship personalities, not just drawing in viewers to watch, but a large amount of work has gone into featuring both production-wise,” wrote media consultant Patrick Crakes in an email to Sportico. “NBC is not getting many breaks so far.”
Comcast-owned NBC, which is paying $1.1 billion for these Olympics, was already reeling with the Games postponed 12 months for the coronavirus, production challenges due to Covid protocols, and largely fan-less venues sapping energy from broadcasts.
“If Biles is out for good, it’s like Brady missing a Super Bowl. Losing the biggest star of the Games in the most popular event is not going to help an already-troubled Games,” Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising, said in an email. “Osaka’s loss is also disappointing, but not on the same level as Biles; gymnastics is much more of a once-every-four-year attraction,” Dorfman said.
Osaka and Biles are the faces of these Games in many ways, with Osaka the rare current athlete to light the Olympic torch, and Biles the dominant star in one of the most-watched Olympic sports. Both recently got the docu-series treatment—Biles on Facebook and Osaka on Netflix.
Osaka became the highest-paid female athlete in the world after she burst on the global tennis scene three years ago with the first of four Grand Slam wins. She was born in Japan and moved to the U.S. at age 3 but continued to represent Japan in international competitions, with her hometown Games helping push her endorsement earnings to $50 million a year, more than any athlete on the planet outside of Roger Federer, LeBron James and Tiger Woods.
“It’s tough for the IOC and networks, but they will all put a brave face on this and suggest, through their tears, that this is what makes the Olympics great,” said Rick Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University and former CMO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. “New champions are crowned and the fans realize that nothing is a given.”
Biles has built a robust endorsement portfolio on the back of her 30 Olympic and World Championship medals. She has deals with Visa, United Air Lines and Oreo cookies.
Osaka’s biggest endorsement is with Nike, which pays her more than $10 million annually. The Swoosh was a longtime Biles sponsor as well, but the gymnast ditched the sportswear giant this year for a deal with the Gap-owned Athleta brand. Biles said she admired the company for empowering women. She joined another former Nike athlete, sprinter Allyson Felix, as an Athleta sponsor.
The pressure on both Osaka and Biles was immense entering these Games. “I’m disappointed in every loss, but I feel like this one sucks more than the others,” Osaka said after her defeat. “I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this.”
Biles also addressed the pressure this week in an Instagram post. “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard,” she wrote to her 4.8 million followers. “The olympics is no joke!”
In a tweet, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said the organization was proud of Biles, adding, “We applaud your decision to prioritize your mental wellness over all else, and offer you the full support and resources of our Team USA community as you navigate the journey ahead.”
(This story has been updated with quotes and details throughout.)