What the Simone Biles Situation Says About How We View Our Athletes
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What the Simone Biles Situation Says About How We View Our Athletes

August 4, 2021

The Olympics are happening in Tokyo, as the athletes gather there to represent their respective countries. These Olympic games should have taken place last year, but the pandemic prevented that. Now, most countries feel like they have Covid-19 under control enough that they will allow international travel.

The reality is that while some countries are doing an excellent job with the coronavirus and the control measures they have taken, others struggle to tamp down rising cases and deaths. America is seeing a resurgence and an uptick in cases, presumably because some individuals refuse to vaccinate themselves, regardless of what medical professionals tell them.

That is why some athletes have had to withdraw from the Olympic games, either once they reached Tokyo or before. This must be heartbreaking for them, as many train for their entire lives for this opportunity.

There is another storyline coming out of these Olympic games, though, and that is what’s happening with Simone Biles. The highly-regarded gymnast has withdrawn from several key events, and that’s drawing all kinds of commentary here in the states and abroad.

Let’s talk about what the Simone Biles situation says about America and how the country views its athletes.

A Focus on Mental Health

As meaningful events like the Olympics have started up again in 2021, many venues have tried to address safety hazards by instituting precautionary measures. Some venues are allowing spectators in with masks on, while others say you must show proof you received a vaccine.

At the Olympics, there are no spectators other than photographers, indicating how seriously Japan is trying to take its rising numbers. Covid-19 is not what sidelined Simone Biles, though.

Biles competed in an early gymnastics competition and didn’t score as highly as anyone expected. She seemed to change direction in midair, causing her to come down awkwardly. It was unusual for this remarkable athlete, who has wowed audiences and particularly gymnastics enthusiasts for the past several years.

Following this event, Biles addressed the media and stated that she would skip some events because she felt that body and mind were not in sync. Since then, pundits, politicians, and talking heads of all stripes have put their two cents in.

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Some praised Biles for being so candid about her mental health issues, while others excoriated her. Some have said she’s embarrassing America or she’s a disgrace.

What Can We Take from These Viewpoints?

Everyone seems to have opinions on this, and because there is no correct, definitive answer, there will be camps that feel differently. Some people seem to be speaking negatively about Biles because they believe she owes them something. Their standpoint is that she’s representing America on the world stage. Because of that, she’s somehow showing weakness or not living up to her potential if she doesn’t take home the gold in every event in which she competes.

The reality is that Simone Biles doesn’t owe anybody anything, though. Yes, she’s representing the United States at these Olympic games, but she’s also not some sort of incredibly athletic robot. She’s a human being, and it just so happens that she has shown extraordinary resilience in the past.

Biles also spoke out strongly some years ago about sexual abuse that took place at the hands of Dr. Larry Nassar. Nassar abused not only Biles but several other Olympic athletes and hopefuls. Biles was able to rely on her tremendous mental strength and fortitude to go public with that information, and many commentators rightfully applauded her at that point.

Our Athletes Are Human Beings

If Biles could withstand traumatic sexual abuse and walk away from it with her head held high, we should give her all the credit for that. We should also not subject her to any lofty expectations whenever and wherever she chooses to ply her craft. 

We know she’s a gymnastics prodigy. We should also trust that if she says all is not right with her, and she’s not mentally or physically ready to compete, she knows what she’s talking about, and we have to accept that.

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Calling Biles names or saying she’s a disgrace is the same thing as telling a basketball player to shut up and dribble instead of standing up for social justice. It presupposes that this athlete is just that and nothing more: an athlete and not a human being with real thoughts and emotions.

We might not know precisely what is happening with Simone Biles, and we don’t need to. She can reveal as much to the world as she wants to, but she also doesn’t have an obligation to say anything at all. If she wanted to withdraw from competition and not give any reason for doing so, we should respect her for that and not try to delve too deeply into her private life.

The pundits and politicians calling her out for perceived cowardice, or saying far worse things, have no idea how difficult gymnastics is at an Olympic level. They don’t have the faintest conception of how hard any Olympic-level event is, and they’re not qualified to say a single thing, either about Simone Biles or anyone else.

If Biles chooses to compete in some of the events, we should cherish that and enjoy watching. She has transcendent talent, and when mind and body are right, there’s hardly anyone else alive with her skill set. If she doesn’t want to compete, that might disappoint us, but it is not our right to expect more than she wants to give.

Athletes often talk about whether or not they are role models. Some seem to embrace the notion, while others reject it.

You can regard Biles as a role model or not. That’s your prerogative. One thing is certain, though: if you consider her a role model because of her athletic prowess, you should respect her even more if she knows all is not right with her and dares to step away when necessary.

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