American gymnast Simone Biles is 24 years old. She’s four feet, eight inches tall. She can do things in gymnastics that totally amaze me and people who know more about the sport than I do say she’s the greatest gymnast of all time, at least until the next GOAT appears as history has taught us over and over.
I have no reason to doubt that she’s the best, but she’s not a demigod. She’s a young woman who is great at gymnastics. On the one hand, the prevailing binary paradigm put her on a pedestal too high for any human being. On the other hand, she basked in her glory, which she was both entitled to do and earned with years of extraordinary hard work and suffering, some of it inexcusable, and dedication.
No one can do what Simone Biles did without all of this, plus the mindset that told her she could defy gravity, the limits of human endurance, the strength that a tiny body could muster that would put others to shame. Who would even try moves that not only seemed impossible, but potentially risky enough to kill someone? Simone Biles did, and she succeeded. There is a mental component, beyond her physical skills, that told her she could do it. Maybe you think you’re that mentally tough, but I’m not.
But she’s still just young woman and an athlete. She believed that she still had one more Olympics in her, and maybe she did, but maybe she didn’t. She was willing but as she dashed toward a vault, something in her head told her that this time, at this age, at this stage of her long gymnastics career, it wasn’t going to work. What happened was in her head, and no one will ever truly know. But if it was a crack in her confidence, a split-second of hesitation that made her feel that this time, this time, she wasn’t going to pull it off, then she had no choice but to pull back and take a breath.
This wasn’t a lack of mental toughness. She’s long since proven her mental toughness beyond that of any other gymnast. But even a person with that strength will have moments of doubt. And you can’t do what Biles did when your mind goes from the certainty that you defy physics to doubt. Human minds do that, and she, for all her greatness and astounding skill, is still just a human being.
Did she let down her team? In a sense, as every team is interdependent and relies on each member to hold up their end. But if her head precluded her from performing at the level we’ve come to expect of Biles, she wouldn’t have performed as well as the team would have hoped. That wouldn’t have helped the team either. Even Simone Biles can’t guarantee she’ll stick the landing every time. Her withdrawal gave other team members, Olympic athletes who, like Biles, earned their place in Tokyo through years of extraordinary hard work and dedication, the chance to shine. These aren’t fillers, but the best gymnasts in America, even if they aren’t Biles. They, too, deserve their moment in the sun for the years of their life given to the sport.
Far too much of our angst was put on Simone Biles’ shoulders, which may well have been part of the burden in her head that resulted in her loss of confidence. And yet, even after she did what any 24-year-old woman is entitled to do, any athlete should do when she feels that internal doubts will prevent her from doing what she needs to do, if not potentially cause her serious physical harm, we’re doing it to her again.
What kind of champion withdraws at the Olympics?
One who can recognize her limits and stop before she crashes into them.
Biles is a champion, and she has the medals to prove it. But turning her withdrawal into a championship move is silly. Withdrawing from the team competition is an entirely understandable and reasonable decision, and there is nothing shameful about it. But no one gets a medal for recognizing their limits either.
There was, predictably, plenty of pushback. Critics on Twitter lamented that quitting is the new winning, casting it as weak and lazy Generation Z behavior. But in a social-media-driven world, young elite athletes have a new power, too: They have more control of their own careers, and the narratives around them.
It’s hard, no, impossible, to imagine a more absurd criticism than to suggest Biles is some weakling, some slacker, too soft and lazy to tough it out. She already did, over and over, more than her critics could ever do. Let them dedicate themselves to accomplishment as Biles has before they get to carry her sweat suit. Fuck them.
But this isn’t some “new power,” wrapped up in woke excuses. To Biles’ credit, she isn’t saying so, and others should keep their narratives off Simone Biles.
This is what change looks like: choice.
Athletes have always had choice, and many have said “enough” and walked away when that seed of doubt, that crack in their confidence, told them it was time to stop.
Biles joins a growing number of younger athletes, including her fellow Olympian the tennis star Naomi Osaka, who are pushing against the traditional American narrative of gold at all costs, including the expense of their own mental or physical health.
Biles isn’t Osaka. Osaka didn’t quit because she no longer wanted to play or win, but because she didn’t care for a part of the deal she made when she turned tennis pro. She wanted to enjoy the benefits without any burdens she found unpleasant. Biles withdrew when she realized she couldn’t do it, not because she didn’t feel like doing it.
As for the “traditional American narrative of gold at all costs,” if you don’t want to win, if you aren’t willing to push yourself to your limits and beyond, then why be an athlete? That’s the gig. Nobody proudly fields an Olympic team of happy losers who can’t compete. To suggest that the will to win is asking too much of an athlete is idiocy. That’s what being an athlete means.
Simone Biles has accomplished amazing things, and for that she has earned, and deserved, vast admiration and recognition. But her withdrawal isn’t a moment of glory, just as it isn’t a moment of shame. Simone Biles is a human being who is great at gymnastics, but is still just a human being. There’s nothing wrong with that. Leave Simone Biles alone.
Update: And if you wonder why Biles ended up in the middle of the culture war, this didn’t help.