Or rather, let’s talk about how we talk about Simone.
Within the last 12 hours, Team USA gymnast Simone Biles, a 24-year-old woman who has already earned herself a near-mythic reputation in the sports world, announced that she was sitting out the team gymnastics final in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. She described feeling like she wasn’t in the right mental place, and she struggled in her early-round event. In later comments, she said she needed to take a mental health day because she didn’t want to “do something silly out there and get injured.” Her team, with back-up Jordan Chiles in place, won the silver medal in the team event, barely losing out to Russia.
Look, I’m not a gymnast. (File this under “Obvious statements are obvious.”) But what I can gather from simple observation is that gymnastics requires not only an incredible level of physical stamina and control, but also a great deal of mental control, as you are trying to complete complicated multi-stage move sets that require split-second reactions and coordination. Beyond that, you have to make sure your body is positioned properly at all times in order not only to complete certain moves but to do so without causing what could be major or even life-threatening injury. I think we sometimes take this for granted as passive observers of the sport, every-4-year gadflies who (many of us) won’t give gymnastics another thought until we see athletes wearing our country’s name and colors again at the next Olympics.
So if a professional gymnast–a medal winner, a record holder, someone who has devoted her life to her events–says that she needs to take a short break in order to collect herself and continue to perform at top level, I’m inclined to trust her judgment and that of her coaches and trainers, even if she decides to do so at what seems like the worst possible time. I would think that, as a competitor, it was a hard decision for her, because, especially as an Olympic athlete in her mid-20’s, it’s not like she’ll get many more of these opportunities in her career.
But what do I know. I’m just a guy on the internet.
And as an admitted “guy on the internet,” I’d like to take a moment to talk about what I’m seeing in response.
Opinions: Everybody’s got one.
It seems like much of the online response is dividing up along two camps. There are those who are quick to pour adoration on Biles for this decision; she has “already won,” she is heroic, she is stunning and brave. Others seem just as quick to pour derision; she is selfish, she is failing to keep her commitments, she should never have agreed to participate if this were an option to her.
Some have drawn unfavorable comparisons to other young men and women in history who have faced undoubtedly more serious challenges to health and heart, literal life-and-death moments that demanded their moral courage and mental toughness. Others have pointed to previous generations of Olympic athletes who have overcome much more and are lauded for their tenacity.
If you’re in either of these camps, can I ask you to do me a favor? Come over here, just for a second. C’mon. Lean on in. Make room, give everybody a chance to hear this. Okay, ready?
Just…stop for a minute.
Y’all, Simone Biles is a twentysomething young woman who has lived her entire life under a microscope–yes, for a sport she chooses to play, but that doesn’t mean the level of scrutiny that she and all other athletes face is normal, sensible, or appropriate. What’s more, she’s part of an organization that has been involved in pretty heinous scandals recently regarding athletes being sexually abused. I don’t know if Simone Biles was ever victimized, but at the very least she could have been friends with many who were, so that possibly adds a layer of internal struggle and conflict when it comes to this sport she loves.
No, she’s not as courageous as the sixteenth-century Christian martyrs, or the young men who stormed Omaha Beach, or the first-responders on 9/11. Fine. Granted. Those are exceptional and praiseworthy acts of heroism.
She isn’t even facing the type of animus that Jesse Owens overcame or the personal risk and emotional toll of recent Olympic athletes competing under the “refugee” flag because they are seeking asylum from oppressive regimes. Biles is much loved by her teammates and her nation, and she’s respected by her opponents.
I don’t think she deserves the heaping of adulation that she is starting to get and will continue to get by people in the press. But I also think she doesn’t deserve the level of hostility that she will get from her critics and a host of random strangers on the internet.
Let me propose this: Can we, as we see stories like this pop up in the world of sport, try to hold a more moderate position of “well, if she needs the help, I hope she gets it, but that really stinks for her teammates” and pretty much leave it there? Don’t flex on Twitter. Don’t fawn on Facebook. Comment if you want (it’s your social media feed, after all), but don’t be ridiculous about it (in either extreme). Just a suggestion from a random guy on the internet. Take it for what it’s worth.
Why I Care About This.
“If it’s not that big of a deal, why do you care enough about this to write a blog post?” you may rightly ask me.
Here’s why: I personally know people who will see posts and tweets and videos criticizing Biles’ decision as selfish and weak and infantile, and they will internalize those critiques and recall them every time they need to step back from a situation because they recognize the black-dog days that are creeping in around the edges of their mind. These folks will wonder if others in their own lives will see them as selfish and weak for saying “no” and “I can’t do that” rather than running themselves ragged trying to please everyone around them.
And I also know that the rampant adulation of simple self-care that has become popular in the media also creates an environment in which everything is syndromized (if that’s a word). Moments of difficulty and frustration are labelled “bad for my mental health,” so that some folks will run away from anything challenging or necessary or exhausting because they see it as a threat to their wellbeing. There’s a real danger on that end of the conversation, too.
It’s not “heroic” or “sinful” to be self-aware and do what you need to do to stay healthy. It should be normal, even if it’s typically not that common in our culture. Let’s be careful not to overcorrect by throwing a parade when someone admits with regret that they can’t complete a commitment. But let’s not throw stones, either.
I’m glad Team USA won a silver medal, but I don’t see it as a national triumph, just like I don’t see losing the gold to Russia as a national shame. It’s a game, y’all. These aren’t our avatars. They don’t represent all that we are or will be. They’re teenagers and twentysomethings who get the opportunity to compete in the rarified air of a worldwide stage, and it is a shining and thrilling time in their young lives that will end more quickly than they realize. And then in ten years or twenty years, most of them will be forgotten by the fickle masses watching their every move. All of this is transient.
I hope Simone Biles gets the rest she needs (mental and physical) so that she’s able to enjoy this moment. That’s all.