I have a bit of a confession to make. I haven’t watched a single moment of the 2021 Olympics. Honestly, it just isn’t my thing. I have incredible respect for Olympic athletes and there are some amazing human interest stories that can just blow the mind. This year’s version of that is Yusra Mardini. If you don’t yet know her story, open up another tab and go read that first. Her life is far more inspirational and edifying than anything I can write here.
So like I said, I haven’t been following the Olympics. But I have been on social media quite a bit recently. I had a bit of a cold yesterday that made me a bit lazy and unmotivated. I also didn’t sleep at all this evening (it is now 4AM here) because a killer sinus headache just won’t loosen its grip. So I have probaby spent five or six hours over the last day just scrolling through facebook and instagram. I’m not proud of that fact, but I’m not going to hide it or rationalize it either. It just is what it is.
Because of all that social media, I’ve seen loads of people praising and applauding Simone Biles for having the courage and heroism to step away from the competition. I’ve seen veterans post about how if more soldiers did the same, there would probably be far less veteran suicides. I’ve seen people contrast Simone Biles stepping away with Elena Mukhina who did not and ended up becoming a quadraplegic. I’ve seen heartwrenching posts of parents who wanted to show their children inspiring moments from previous Olympics… except what used to inspire them now sickens them.
Honestly, when I was just laying in my bed and scrolling through such posts I agreed with all of these sentiments. Yes there were some detractors, but they were a small minority and at first, I was not one of them. After all, Elena Mukhina was pushed back into her training too soon. Many coaches and trainers do push their athletes too hard both physically and mentally. Sometimes there is not just a fine line between what it takes to make it to that level of competition and what it takes to physically and mentally destroy a person’s well being. They are often one and the same and those coaches that do back off will almost never have someone acheiving that level of greatness. In most sports, athletes are just starting to reach their peak years in their early 20’s. By then, most female gymnasts have already announced their retirement. Women like Mary Lou Retton, Carly Patterson, and Jordyn Weiber all retired before the age of 20. McKayla Skinner is the oldest woman on the current US team. She is 24. So yes, coaches push their kids too hard and yes, it is brutal on their bodies. This is true of every single athlete out there no matter which country they represent.
What really changed changed my mind was the words of Simone Biles herself. At the beginning of her interview, Biles said, “I just felt that it would be a little bit better if I took a back seat to work on my mindfulness.” Work on my mindfulness. What does that mean? It is a great buzzword and an excellent PR spin. But what is she really talking about? Simone Biles had a really bad vault. According to the NY Times she “lost her way in midair.” Did she get spooked? Was there a near crash that could have been injurious? Whatever the case, Biles immediately quit the competition right after. Why? To work on her mindfulness. Getting back to the interview, Biles later is asked if there was an injury and if she could further elaborate. She answered, “No injury, thankfully. And that’s why I took a step back because I didn’t want to do something silly out there and get injured. So I thought it was best if these girls took over.”
I get that. She is trying to dance around the issue, but what I am hearing her say is that she got spooked and her mind wasn’t in the right place. She feared that if she continued she might do injury to herself and hurt the team’s chances even more than the faulty vault already had. If that is the case and that were the end of the issue, I would completely applaud her. Being self aware enough to recognize that she did not have the mental fortitude to continue at that moment was probably the best choice for herself and the team. Personally, it seems to me like she rage quit and then was backpedaling a justification afterward, but I get that too. I almost did the same thing as a teenager under far less pressure, for far worse reasons, on a far smaller stage. But I had a coach, dad, who simply would not let me. So whether she rage quit or truly wanted what was best for her team is neither here nor there. Either way, I would understand. I wouldn’t applaud her or condemn her. It is what it is.
But then, we will all never know what truly is, because she tried to both hide it and rationalize it. This is where Biles loses me. After applauding her teammates for stepping up when she didn’t, she then starts to pile on the rationalizations. She says, “It has been really stressful this Olympic Games with not having an audience. It has been a long week. There are a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week. It’s been a long Olympic process. It has been a long year. So, just a lot of different variables and I think we’re a little bit too stressed out. We should be out here having fun and sometimes, that’s just not the case.” I am sorry, but that is just one big steaming pile of male bovine feces. There are over ten thousand athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympics. All of them are competing without crowds. For all of them it has been a long week, year, and process. They are all stressed out. But only one quit. Ten thousand, three hundred and four of them didn’t. Miss Biles, if you want to have fun, go sign up for a membership at your local YMCA. You are in the Olympics. You are there to win. And if you are not there to win, then you have no business being there in the first place.
Already having gone too far, Biles then turns and starts to preach her justifications. She says we all need to “Put mental health first. Because if you don’t then you are not gonna enjoy your sport and you are not gonna succeed as much as you want to. So it’s OK sometimes even to sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself. It shows how strong of a competetor and person that you really are.” I am OK with choosing to put mental health first. If you equate mental health with mental fortitude, which Simone Biles demonstrably does not have, then I would also agree that without it, you cannot succeed as much as you want to. She is walking living proof of this. If she had a little mental fortitude, perhaps even as much as the other ten thousand athletes all around her, then her team almost certainly would have won the gold. I do not agree that it is OK to sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself. Not if you are in a team sport. Not if you are not injured and others are depending on you. In those big moments, the individual must take back seat to the team. If someone can’t do that, then they have no business being part of a team. Sitting out does show how strong of a competetor you are. You are a weak one.
Simone Biles might be the most physically gifted woman to ever compete in gymnastics. She might have more natural and even more hard earned talent than anyone who has ever lived. But she is not the greatest gymnast ever. She isn’t even the best on her team. If she is lucky, she might be able to redeem herself in time for the next Olympics. Maybe she will be too old or too injured at that point. It is an extremely tough sport. But the only way Simone Biles might be able to claim the title of the greatest gymnast in the world is if she stops focusing on mental health and instead starts developing some mental fortitude.