Jim Souhan
See more of the story

TOKYO — At the Olympics, the media seating area is not called a press box. It is called a "tribune," and it is usually located high in the stands.

At the Rio Olympics, I found a seat on the mezzanine tribune level and watched Simone Biles begin her floor exercise. Suddenly, improbably, Biles was seemingly floating, rising to my eye level, peaking and spinning at altitude, creating her own definition of flying.

What Biles does requires power and grace, but also bravery and awareness. If you're going to launch yourself toward space, you are accepting the risk of a faulty landing.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Biles vaulted, spun toward the sky and felt, perhaps for the first time, lost in space. She admitted she was feeling "demons'' of self-doubt and anxiety. In doing so, she set a new standard for athletic bravery.

She withdrew from the competition, admitting to the world that she did not feel well enough mentally and emotionally to proceed. Early Wednesday morning, she withdrew from Thursday's final individual all-around.

This is an international superstar who has competed, and won, with broken toes and a kidney stone, plus all of the routine and untold injuries that plague any elite gymnast.

Biles could have claimed that a sprained ankle or toe kept her from competing. She chose this stage, a platform elevated by her stature in the sport and her previous advocacy of athletes' rights, to make an example of herself.

Once again, she has risen above her sport.

This elicited a predictable reaction from the self-described tough guys of social and other media, those invested in the mythology of the impervious injured athlete. They would have you believe that athletic bravery can be defined only by performing while in pain.

The kindest word that can be applied to that viewpoint is "selfish.''

Athletes do not owe us pain and self-destruction. If this is a relatively new concept in sports, it is a concept being validated by more athletes every month.

Former Timberwolf Kevin Love has talked openly about his anxieties. Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open while saying she did not feel comfortable conducting interviews. This week in Tokyo, the Japanese tennis star lost in two sets, failing to medal in her home country after lighting the Olympic cauldron during the Opening Ceremony.

Now Biles, an even more dominant performer than Osaka and expected to be the dominant figure of these Olympics, left her team competition during an event while admitting she could not "mentally'' go on.

This development is sad, yet hopeful. It's painful to watch a great athlete unable to perform for any reason. It's hopeful because Biles is so much more than a gymnast, and this may be evidence that her primary goal in competing in Tokyo was to use her prominence for good.

She had admitted in interviews that she believed it was important for her to be on the team as a survivor of Larry Nassar's sexual abuses of Team USA members. "If there wasn't a remaining survivor in the sport they would have just brushed it to the side,'' she told NBC's Hoda Koth.

Nassar was the team doctor. An investigation by the Indianapolis Star revealed that at least two gymnasts had accused him of sexual abuse and that USA Gymnastics had failed to alert authorities to numerous allegations of sexual abuse by coaches in the program.

Biles staying in the program to represent the abused is a greater act of bravery than even hurling yourself toward the ceiling and hoping your ankles survive the landing.

As a 24-year-old legend who is also a Black woman in a sport once dominated by white women, she also presents herself relentlessly as a symbol of equality and equity, thus placing herself in the crosshairs of the knuckle-dragging sports fans who believe athletes are cartoon figures invented to entertain us.

Biles is providing a reminder that even seemingly invincible athletes face typical human challenges, and that even the greatest athletes can win big without taking home gold.

"Demons,'' Biles called her doubts, her insecurities, her worries.

It's also a word that applies to those who would question her toughness or her bravery.