[Spoiler Alert: If you are not following the Olympics in real time, and want to be surprised, DON’T READ this. Go off and watch the replays of Tom Daly and Matty Lee winning the men’s 10-meter platform synchronized diving event. Ogle the guys in the really small Speedos, the counterpoint to the women’s beach volleyball outfits.]
Simon Biles dropped out of the women’s gymnastics team all around.
Claiming she did not suffer from physical injuries, after a botched vault, she decided that her head was not in the right space, and pulled out. Her teammates went on without her and won the silver. She watched and cheered them from the sidelines. It is unclear whether she will compete in the individual all-around and apparatus finals.
Good for her.
When Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open, citing mental health issues, critics lambasted her for her decision. Fortunately, other athletes and the public came to her defense. Biles will likewise face a storm of shit headed her way.
She should ignore it, as hard as that may be.
If Osaka goes on past the point where her head is in the game, she loses a tennis match. If Simone Biles goes past the point where her brain tells her she should stop, she can break a leg – or worse. As she commented, she didn’t want “to be carried out on a stretcher.”
Simone Biles has changed the sport of gymnastics in almost unimaginable ways. She has not one but four different maneuvers named for her. Some observers have criticized the sport’s governing body for giving those moves too low a degree of difficulty. One theory says that they have been given such low designations to discourage other gymnasts from trying them because they are dangerous. Biles has done things on vault that some men gymnasts don’t try.
All the while she has been a role model of sportsmanship and civic engagement. When her teammate Jordan Chiles was ready to quit the sports, Biles encouraged her to come to her Texas gym, and together they worked on not just Chiles’s skills but her confidence. Chiles is competing in Tokyo.
Biles has spoken out about her sport. She has criticized USA Gymnastics for failing to protect scores of gymnasts – including herself – from sexual assault at the hands of serial abuser former team doctor Larry Nasser. She has spoken out, bravely, about her own experience as an abuse survivor. As the last of Nasser’s victims in the sport, she showed the resilience and courage that is her hallmark. “I just feel like [with] everything that happened, I had to come back to the sport to be a voice, to have change happen,” Biles told People. “Because I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side.”
Biles has been unafraid to use her high profile to talk about other important issues, as well. In an interview with Glamour magazine, she spoke about the death of Breonna Taylor, and of her support for Black Lives Matter. “We need change,” she said. “We need justice for the Black community. With the peaceful protests it’s the start of change, but it’s sad that it took all of this for people to listen. Racism and injustice have existed for years with the Black community. How many times has this happened before we had cell phones?”
Olympic athletes are competing for their country, ostensibly, but really they compete for themselves. If Katy Ledecky destroys the competition in the women’s 1500 meter freestyle, we marvel at her abilities, not at the United States for having produced her. Oh, we pull for the national team, but really in the long run it’s the athlete who gets to hang the medal on their wall. (In a lot of cases, I am not necessarily rooting for the US, but for whatever tiny country is the biggest underdog. I was tickled pink when Flora Duffy of Bermuda won the woman’s triathlon, thus giving Bermuda its first gold medal ever, and making it the smallest country to ever win an Olympic medal.)
No athlete — Olympic or otherwise — owes us a damn thing, especially not Simone Biles, who has given us so much already. All she owes us is to take care of herself.
Because I would bet anything that, even if she never performs another vault or floor routine, Simone Biles is going to be a force for good in the world for years to come.