Of course not, and so a world champion athlete is suddenly just a “Black woman” and a victim, and quitting is a display of strength and courage. Otherwise, it’s yet another moment where we must be for something or against something, either-or, all or nothing.
Let me start by stating what should be obvious to all: Simone Biles quit and quitting is not what we expect from Olympic-caliber athletes, certainly not one with 30 Olympic and World Championship medals to her credit, the most ever for an American gymnast, making her widely considered one of the greatest of all time. The reason we don’t expect Olympic champions or anyone in any field that competes in the upper echelon of human endeavor to quit should be equally obvious: Success at that level requires both the skill and the will. You could be the greatest guitarist who ever lived, but in order to be acknowledged as such you need to play your heart out night after night, year after year, whether you’re feeling great or not-so-great. As AC/DC once sang, “It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.”
At the same time, it should also be just as obvious that Ms. Biles is entitled to make whatever decision about her performance and future that is best for her, just like everyone else, nor does protecting herself make her the worst person in the world. If she felt she couldn’t handle the strain and, as a result, her health was at risk performing potentially dangerous routines, she has the right to withdraw for any reason, nor does she have to explain herself to anyone. We don’t compel the imaginary guitarist from the last paragraph to perform. According to Ms. Biles herself, she experienced a phenomenon known as the “twisties,” a feeling where a gymnast loses control of their body in the air, rendering them unable to perform routines as they had in the past. “The rhythm is off, and your brain will like stutter step for half a second and that’s enough to throw off the whole skill,” gymnast Laurie Hernandez told Olympics.com. “And, so, it happens, and it takes a second to get over that…I’ve had the twisties before. Hated it — so much. It’s painful. It actively makes you feel like you’re not the caliber of athlete that you are.”
Fair-minded people should take Ms. Biles at her word and give her the benefit of the doubt that she made the best decision for herself. This, however, does not preclude criticising her for not performing as expected and letting down her team and country. Ms. Biles is a public figure, competing on an international stage, and her actions and their consequences are not protected from scrutiny by any means, anymore than Tom Brady were he to drop out halfway through a Superbowl or even Bruce Springsteen were he to throw in the towel on “Born to Run.” Nor should it prevent people from re-evaluating her career. While nothing can take her previous medals and achievements away, quitting in the middle of a competition is certainly something to be considered when looking at the totality of her accomplishments. We poke fun at athletes for choking all the time. Consider Bill Buckner. He played above average baseball on a professional level for 22 years, batting .289 lifetime and averaging 175 hits per year. Not the best of the best by any means, but certainly more accomplished than 99.9% of people who have played the game. How is he remembered? For choking in the World Series in 1986, missing an easy ground ball that dribbled between his legs. That’s it, an entire career reduced to one bad moment and his life to a punchline. The public and sports fans in particular are not known to be forgiving.
Unfortunately, it’s a symptom of the madness afflicting our culture that it’s no longer enough to offer a fair and fairly obvious analysis, and just leave it at that. In a rational world, you could support Ms. Biles’ decision because it was best for her personally, while not praising her for it as heroic. You could also criticize her decision without thinking she’s a horrible person, or being asked whether or not you’ve competed on an Olympic level and if the answer is no, your opinion somehow isn’t worth anything. Increasingly, we no longer live in such a rational world, and hence everything is reduced to all or nothing, either-or, for or against. This is the kind of moment that crystalizes precisely how warped we’ve become.
The mainstream media is, of course, leading the charge, lauding her decision to quit as if it was some master stroke of athletics. The New York Times, for example, opined that “Simone Biles Rejects a Long Tradition of Stoicism in Sports,” saying she was “widely embraced as the latest elite athlete who had the courage to acknowledge her vulnerability.” On a side note, I have argued we should give more stoicism a try. NBC News went one step further, claiming that Ms. Biles has cemented her position as the Greatest of All Time by quitting. Anna Marie Cox believes it “takes more strength to throw off enormous expectations than it takes to live up to them.” “It took the lowest vault score of her Olympic gymnastics career for Simone Biles to seal her position as the greatest of all time. She gave up having others judge where she might place and put herself first.” Suzette Hackney, writing for USA Today, concurs, “U.S. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, adorned with bedazzled goats on her leotards, strut into competition with the pressure of living up to the GOAT acronym: the greatest of all time. Biles proved to be just that when she decided to withdraw from the team competition Tuesday.”
Incredibly, none of these puff pieces even bothers to mention the teammates and the country she let down in the process. Did they not work just as hard as she did? Were they not counting on her after putting countless hours of work in themselves? Did Ms. Biles not take another, more willing participant’s place only to give it up in the middle of the competition?
These are all valid questions, perfectly reasonable to ask and consider as we evaluate Ms. Biles’ decision. Instead, this is framed as all about her, as if the entire Olympics was organized simply for her benefit and the entire team and staff was there just for her. Here’s Ms. Hackney again, “Biles is a hero and role model – not because she pushed through her pain for another medal but because she quit to take care of herself.” She continues, “Part of being great is recognizing when you can’t be great. Biles has shown the world what true strength looks like.” Read that again, quitting is “true strength” all of a sudden? What about all of the athletes over the decades that have refused to quit? Are they weak now or just fools?
Consider F1 racing legend, Niki Lauda, who passed away in 2019. His almost-mythic rivalry with British racer James Hunt during the 1976 season was the subject of a Ron Howard film, Rush. On August 1, 1976, his race car swerved off the track in the second lap of a race in Germany. He hit an embankment and the car burst into flames trapping him inside. Mr. Lauda suffered severe burns on his body and inhaled poisonous gases, damaging his throat and lungs, losing a good chunk of his right ear, the hair on the right side of his head, eyebrows and eyelids. No one would have blamed him for missing the rest of the season or quitting the sport entirely. He was ultimately scarred for the rest of his life. Instead, Mr. Lauda appeared at a press conference barely 6 weeks later, head still bandaged, and announced his return to racing. All told, he missed only two races and lost the championship that year by 1 point. I think most people would describe this as “true strength.” By the standards of today, however, is this foolishness or weakness and Ron Howard should have made a film about another racer who quit?
Much is also being made of the focus on mental health and the connection to physical health. This strikes me as a reasonable discussion to be had and it’s been encouraging in recent years to see even rockstars and bonafide legends like Bruce Springsteen openly talk about their struggles with depression. It’s incredibly difficult to say how that applies to Ms. Biles, however. She is a survivor of the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal, but hasn’t attributed her failure to continue to any broader mental health issue, only saying she couldn’t handle the stress. Before quitting, she said on Instagram during the warm up sessions, “It wasn’t an easy day or my best but I got through it. I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The Olympics is no joke!” To Ms. Hackney, this is a “clue she was struggling.” After quitting, she said, “It’s been really stressful, this Olympic Games. I think just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week, it’s been a long Olympic process, it’s been a long year. So just a lot of different variables, and I think we’re just a little bit too stressed out. But we should be out here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case.”
Ms. Hackney concludes, “She’s right. Nothing is funny about the immense pressure she must have felt to be perfect. Imagine how difficult it was to make the decision to step aside with the world – literally – watching. She deserves credit for showcasing such courage.” Other “experts” are also weighing in on the pressure of being the best, “I don’t like it,” Robert Andrews, a sports performance consultant who counseled Biles in 2016 told Yahoo. “I think it’s misplaced, I think it’s misused and I think it puts a big target on athlete’s backs.” This strikes me as a rather bizarre and backwards way of looking at things: Fortunes and legends are made in such ways. The entire purpose of these competitions is that the average person can’t do it; no one wants to watch me on the balance beam, I assure you. Instead, we watch for the insatiable drive and desire to win. If quitting is indeed strength and we’re worried that athletes are stressing out under the pressure, there’s no point to any of it. Putting this another way, how many legendary moments in sports can you name that aren’t about overcoming adversity, pain, or injury, or risking life and limb to make the play?
Of course, no controversy in the year 2021 could be complete without a racial component. Hence, a champion like Ms. Biles is reduced to a “black woman” or a “person of color,” and, as we all know, people of color face special pressures. Pay no mind to the fact that she competed, excelled, and won at the pinnacle of the sport for close to 10 years and widely considered the best in the world, if not all time. Suddenly, she’s a victim.
Shalise Manza Young, writing for Yahoo, asks “If Simone Biles criticism doesn’t convince you Black women shoulder too heavy a burden, what will?” She continues, “None of us know what it’s like to be Simone Biles. Or Naomi Osaka. You can ask someone who might have some semblance of an idea, as NBC did with Michael Phelps during its swimming broadcast, about the pressure to perform your absolute best…But Phelps is a straight white man. For all of his greatness, he always had that safety net.” Black women, however, don’t “dare shine too bright, because then you’ll provide a new reason to be criticized.” Oddly, Ms. Young acknowledges the obvious: Most of the mainstream media has lauded Ms. Biles, “This isn’t to say that Biles and Osaka haven’t gotten waves of public support, from people we’d expect, and others that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. It’s been heartening to see.” Perhaps needless to say, she just had to continue, “It still doesn’t lighten the loads that they’ve carried, the unending pressure to be Black and a woman and successful at a level few if any have ever reached.”
To summarize Ms. Young’s position, you’re either with Ms. Biles or against her, and if you happen to criticize her it’s racist. She is above criticism because she is a person of color. Got it? Call me a cynic if you will, but I can’t help suspect Ms. Young has it backwards. This complete and total inversion of the standards with which we judge athletes, as in persevering, not quitting, and not letting down your team, is happening specifically because Ms. Biles is a black woman and a supporter of Black Lives Matter. Putting this another way, does anyone truly believe the reaction would be even remotely the same if Trump supporting Tom Brady refused to come out after halftime in the Super Bowl for mental health issues? Of course not, these very same people would be mocking him, mercilessly.
Tom Brady, however, has never openly endorsed the anti-racist movement. Ms. Biles has, “We need change,” she told Vogue last July. “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?” Oddly, she continued to suggest that peaceful protests weren’t enough, or at least it appeared that way. In the middle of a summer jam-packed with riots, looting, and burning, Ms. Biles said, “We tried peaceful protesting. Then Colin Kaepernick—he lost his job. He lost his career. They took his whole entire career away from that poor man. And look at us now.”
Yes, look at us now: Quitting is true strength, criticizing her decision even as you respect her right to make it is racist, and everyone should just keep their mouths shut, anyway, unless of course you’re an Olympic athlete with a kind word. Oh, and War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength, why not? Every once in a while a cultural moment crystallizes the insanity of the modern world. I humbly submit to you that this is one of those moments, and where this ends isn’t pretty.