Simone Biles has done something that some people will deem scandalous: She spoke honestly.
The news from Tokyo earlier today was stunning: The world’s best gymnast, who was expected to win perhaps as many as five gold medals, raised the white flag. She admitted her mental health was in trouble, and she risked her physical well being and her teammates’ chances for success if she had continued competing in the finals of the team all-around competition.
It takes strength to do what is unpopular at the time. It takes even more strength to stand in front of a phalanx of media and discuss it.
In past Olympics, if Biles had continued to compete, not done her best and not won, the “choke” label would have been placed around her neck. And if she’d have stepped away as she did today, the label would have been “quitter.” Worst of all, if God forbid Biles had kept on going because of the expectations that surrounded her and then harmed herself in the worst possible way in order to alleviate her crushing anguish…
That’s a label we don’t want to fathom.
We’ve come a long way as society. But we’re not all the way there. We know in the coming days there will be sizable numbers of sports fans who will rise up in their self-righteous anger and scream “Biles is a wimp, a quitter, not a real athlete.”
To you, I have a simple reply: Shut up.
It is not Simone Biles’ fault that the fawning media have placed her on a pedestal where anything less than perfection is not success. And, yes, it also is not her fault that we sports fans have done the same.
I accept, not everyone is a fan of gymnastics (you’d find me at the front of that line, by the way), but sports fans know it’s wrong to elevate mere mortals to a place where we demand — and, yes, demand is the right word — they deliver what we expect.
For too many people, Biles’ gold medals would have meant they could (with even more arrogance than usual) thump their chest and say “We’re number 1.” It was Biles who would have provided that crowd the strut they so desperately need in order to make their lives seem whole. It was Biles who had to win in order to again prove what an absolutely exceptional country this is.
And, of course, she still might. Biles hasn’t ruled out competing in some of the individual apparatus finals that are still to come. To borrow a cliche, she’s taking it one day at a time.
For now, Biles is doing something far more important: She’s taking time to guarantee the rest of her life is a bit better than it might have been had she continued to compete on a Tuesday in Tokyo.
Good for her.