The Tokyo Olympics have lacked excitement from the very beginning. Sha'Carri Richardson’s suspension, and COVID restrictions has made for a less-than-thrilling summer Games. At least we still had Simone Biles, though.
But then, the nearly unthinkable happened: Simone was pulled from further competition due to mental health concerns. Because of this, Simone Biles has already received immense backlash. She has been criticized for lacking toughness and, thereby, harming the United States' chance for multiple gold medals.
I'm all for mental toughness, pushing oneself to greatness, and, of course, gold medals for the United States. But, I'm also for recognizing deeper truths. And there are several in this current situation with Simone Biles and the U.S. Women's Olympic team.
The Twisties Are Real
Firstly, the “twisties” that she described are a reality – not some fabricated excuse. Her physical well-being is at stake while she is suffering from this very real phenomenon, in which there is a mind-body disconnect. Following her failed attempt at a two-and-a-half twisting vault during the Olympic team final, Biles stated that she “had no idea where [she] was in the air” and could have hurt herself. The “twisties” are real, terrifying, and clearly a valid reason for temporarily suspending flinging your body high into the air.
There are other psychological factors at play here as well. Biles spoke out about the abuse she suffered at the hands of Dr. Larry Nassar, the team physician, just weeks before the Olympics. Plus, she's competing without her family present to support her. And it would be hard to block out the fact that no matter how perfectly she would execute a challenging routine, her performance would be undervalued for the sake of "fairness" and the "safety of others." (Can you imagine what would happen if the NFL decided to devalue Tom Brady's touchdowns because he's just "too good"?)
The Olympics Are Still Just a Game
Secondly, it's just a game. Yes, the aim of athletic competition is victory. Yes, it’s far better to be the victor than the defeated. However, far better than athletic glory is triumph in the realms of character and virtue. And Simone Biles has certainly triumphed in these areas. Despite the disappointment that must have crashed over her, Simone conducted herself with all class, dignity, and selflessness after the decision to withdraw from team competition. She helped her teammates out, cheered for them, and celebrated with them. She did not pout, make excuses, or wallow in self-pity. She admitted weakness and humbly moved forward.
Simone Biles Is Still Human
Lastly, humans are fallible creatures. No human person – even one dubbed the greatest of all time – is able to obtain perfection. We’re not gods. We’re fallen, broken individuals, and this truth follows us in all that we do – including, of course, physical and athletic pursuits. Simone Biles is still the GOAT, but – above that – she's still human and is subject to "off days," stumbles, and even falling under pressure. We can’t condemn her for her humanity.
Many have contrasted her with Kerri Strug who, in the '96 Olympics, at her coach's insistence, vaulted on an injured ankle to help the team win gold. While that effort is seen by many as heroic (and, don't get me wrong, it was), it’s not one that should be expected or even advocated.
As one father who has daughters in gymnastics pointed out, "Coach Karolyi should have gotten his visibly injured athlete medical help immediately! Now that I have two young daughters in gymnastics, I expect their safety to be the coach's number one priority. Instead, Bela Karolyi told Strug to vault again. And he got what he wanted; a gold medal that was more important to him than his athlete's health."
He continued, "Today Simone Biles – the greatest gymnast of all time – chose to step back from the competition, citing concerns for mental and physical health. I've already seen comments and posts about how Biles 'failed her country,' 'quit on us,' or 'can't be the greatest if she can't handle the pressure.' Those statements are no different than Coach Karolyi telling an injured teen with wide, frightened eyes: 'We got to go one more time. Shake it out.' The subtext here is: 'Our gold medal is more important than your well-being'."
Shattering your health and future for the sake of sport is, to say the least, imprudent. The decision to risk your well-being in order to pursue fleeting glory would (or, at least, should) never be considered sound. Simone Biles did not just get nervous and decide, with the whininess of a coddled child, “I can't.” She accepted that the incredible pressure of the Games had messed with her psyche in an extreme enough way to put her at risk for severe bodily harm. Simone Biles stepping back from a gymnastics routine is different from Tom Brady or Michael Jordan stepping away from a football or basketball game. One small error in gymnastics could result in severe injury or paralysis.
Biles further recognized that she couldn’t perform at the level needed by her team. We should respect her self-awareness, humility, and knowledge that her performance was not the end all, be all.
And, by the way, Strug has already acknowledged that Simone is still the GOAT:
Michael Phelps, who perhaps understands her situation better than anyone else, has also voiced his support for Biles. Said the swimmer, “We carry a lot of things and a lot of weight on our shoulders. It’s challenging, especially when we have the lights on us and all the expectations that are being thrown on top of us. We’re human beings, nobody is perfect… I felt like I was carrying, as Simone said, the weight of the world on my shoulders.”
Simone Biles' withdrawal from the Olympics is certainly a huge disappointment. However, there is no justification for criticism of this young, highly-decorated athlete. At the end of the day, the Olympics are just a game, and Simone Biles is still the greatest gymnast of all time. What's more, she's proven herself to also be a woman of high class and commendable character.
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