On Monday, July 26th, something happened that shocked the world — Simone Biles, darling of the gymnastics world and proclaimed “GOAT,” pulled out of the women’s gymnastics team finals at the Olympics after a vault which could have turned disastrous had she not been one of the best gymnasts in the world. A lot of people, notably “four-year fans,” heard about her withdrawal after hours had passed. Biles cited mental health issues, and everybody’s who decent is considering it a medical issue, too. Some “four-year fans,” i.e. people who only tune into gymnastics when an Olympic medal is on the line, have decried Biles for giving up on her team.
I’ll admit, I’m close to one of those “four-year fans,” being unable to watch many of the tournaments leading up to the Olympics, due to the fact that when they do air, it’s at weird times due to time zones. The announcers, at least on NBC, are also just dreadful. But still, I got up at 3:45 AM PST to watch the final, because I wanted to. It’s not every Olympics the ROC (Russians, for the layman) outpace the Americans in the qualification round. And, monitoring social media — did you know gymnastics has quite the hardcore online fandom — I experienced the shock of Biles leaving with the rest of the viewers who, in America, had gotten up very early to watch the unthinkable happen.
So, the ROC women’s team won the gold medal, and Simone Biles, placed in an impossible decision that day in Tokyo, quickly went from Internet darling to traitor in some’s eyes; mostly right-wing media and conservative Twitter denizens, of course. Here are some points, which those critiquing Biles dare to ignore:
- Mental health issues are medical issues, and more than a few multi-gold medal-holding athletes have expressed their own difficulties — notably, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who defended Biles.
- Gymnasts who have experienced a case of the “twisties,” when you literally cannot perform at the level you’re used to, risk danger to themselves.
- Consider the case of Soviet gymnast Elena Mukhina, who was forced to perform by her coaches on a bad leg, leading to an accident on floor which left her a quadriplegic: Simone Biles could have been headed down that path with her extreme difficulty moves, which virtually no other gymnast does. Her one vault was already terrifying to those watching.
- The American women still won the silver by a sizable margin, which is damn incredible, considering their anchor was forced to step down from performing. Jordan Chiles (who has a kickass Spider-Man-themed floor routine), Sunisa Lee, and Grace McCallum should go down in history for their effort.
Biles has since also pulled out of the individual all-around event, which she was expected to win by a huge margin; whether or not she steps out of the individual apparatus events, where she qualified in all four (!) events, is still up in the air.
To be fair, not every gymnastics fan has yelled about Biles getting out of the competition before risking injury; most are quite sympathetic. That’s not to mention the outpouring of support that Biles and the rest of her teammates have received from the gymnastics world, not just from fellow US competitions, but also from the ROC athletes and many others.
The response to Simone Biles’s withdrawal, in many ways, represents that the culture wars still exist: more conservative commentators scream at her, while many others in the world sympathize with her. The withdrawal also demonstrates that some fandoms are getting better at accepting of disappointments better than others. That’s a good thing; remember, we’re the country that pressured Kerri Strug into vaulting once more on a bum leg for a chance at victory, causing her immense pain. We also house the gymnastics community that allowed the abuses of Dr. Larry Nassar to go unchecked…for years. Biles has even implied that the burden of the abuse she suffered is what’s led to her withdrawals from the competition.
Vox published an eerily well-timed article on Saturday, July 24th, which argues that the abuses haven’t stopped in the gymnastics community. Indeed, if it had been any other gymnast but the legendary Simone Biles, would they have been allowed to pull out of the competition? Maybe. Maybe not.
My well wishes go to Biles; if this is the end of her career, that’s okay. Hopefully, it won’t be, but she knows what’s best for her. Hopefully, everyone can learn to be a little more accepting of mental health struggles moving forward.