First of all, let me say that what I think Simone Biles should have done is completely and thoroughly irrelevant. When something like this happens, I find that the things people choose to say on the internet, as well as the choice to say them at all, reflects a lot more on them than it does on their subject.
I'll explain what I mean in a second.
I'm hesitant to say whether or not I disagree with Simone Biles' decision to withdraw from the team competition at the Olympics, but it's not because I don't feel strongly one way or another. This is not a subject that I'm ambivalent towards or feel any sort of ambiguity about, but regardless of all of that, the situation itself--her choice to step away from the rest of the events after she competed in the vault--doesn't call for my commentary on it.
Because that decision isn't about me.
It isn't about what I think, or how I feel--it's about Simone. All of this is about Simone, which is why I think so many people feel the need to push back against it--against her--so hard. I'm using the present-tense here because while the competition happened Tuesday morning (in America), and it's technically over, I would argue that the choice itself is still going on. It's playing itself out in the most public ways possible, on TV and social media, and while I don't feel like it's my place to say whether or not Simone made the correct decision--that responsibility lies with her and her coaches--I do feel qualified to discuss the reaction to it.
When Naomi Osaka--herself a multiple-time champion--elected to withdraw from the French Open for mental health reasons related to press conferences, it was sort of an opening act for what would happen with Simone Biles a couple of months later. In addition to being fined $15,000 by Roland Garros for quitting the tournament, Osaka was also attacked on Twitter, being called a diva or petulant for her reluctance to participate in an exercise that she believed caused her harm. A brief wave of support rose to combat that rising tide of sexist nonsense, but despite the momentary spike in usage for the term "mental health" (something that you'd think would have caught on permanently by now), the pattern repeated itself at Wimbledon the next month. When Emma Raducanu, a teenager, withdrew from her fourth-round match in the most prestigious major in the world, the same crowd came after her. They believed that the dizziness and difficulty breathing that caused Raducanu to withdraw could have been overcome by a "mentally tougher" athlete.
The greats find ways to deal with these things--or at least that's what that section of society would have you believe. What about Jordan fighting through flu symptoms? What about Brett Favre throwing for four touchdowns after the death of his father? In Simone Biles' case, what about Kerri Strug?
To be frank, the most public of criticism (and much of the stuff that sticks with you) comes from white men like Piers Morgan or Charlie Kirk. Most of the time, those comments can be easily dismissed--Simone Biles is a "selfish sociopath", Charlie? Really?
But it's that second category, the one that sets epic performances amidst adversity as the standard, rather than the exception, that scares me. A LOT more people buy into that kind of thing, whether they choose to blast it out on Twitter or not.
To me, that's what sets the backdrop for discussions around what happened with Osaka and Raducanu, and then eventually Simone Biles. When combined with a projection of their own dealings with adversity onto athletes, these idealized versions of powering through pain create a kind of double resentment towards the athletes. The thinking goes something like this: I deal with problems every day, why can't they? Tiger Woods won the US Open with a torn ACL, so I don't see why this girl can't pull it together to represent the US at the Olympics.
There is, in my view, a lot wrong there. First, maybe we should get a better definition of mental toughness. Does working 70 hours a week, to the point that you never see your kids and your marriage is suffering, make you mentally tough? Has powering through months and years at a job you hate made you indifferent to the pressures that someone else in a different circumstance might be facing? Those are only hypotheticals, of course, but it's the only explanation I can seem to find for all this.
All of that brings me back to the point that I made at the beginning: our reactions to these things say a LOT more about us than they do about who or whatever we're upset about. In the midst of all of this discussion about the US winning a silver medal (which is pretty damn good, by the way), I would challenge you to think a little harder. Instead of facing outward to try and understand why athletes might make the decisions that they make, I would instead look inward. How would you feel if you were the most scrutinized athlete in your sport, on the brightest possible stage, having survived countless physical and emotional injuries to get there? How would you feel if it were your friend out there struggling for everyone to see, or your daughter?
In an article she wrote for The Athletic in June, Jemele Hill called the debate over Osaka's withdrawal a "part of a larger war within sports", specifically over how much power they have to protect themselves. It's pretty stark imagery, but given what I've seen on Twitter over the past couple of months, it's also pretty hard to dismiss. That idea of an athlete "warring" for their own protection seems dramatic, but that's exactly what Simone Biles is going to have to do in the fallout of this decision. Should she have to? I don't think so. But she will.
Whether we want to accept it or not, there are people who are fighting on the other side of that war. Hard. They want their athletes to athlete and nothing else, and more specifically, they want them to adhere to expectations that they have no control over. There are people who criticize athletes like Simone Biles for being "selfish", all while fussing over their Olympics being messed up in the process. It is a backwards, ironic way of understanding the world, and it will only get more frustrating as the years go on.
So, go on, Simone. You've made your decision, and the only people you're really accountable to, your coaches and teammates, have supported you. What I think you should have done doesn't matter; I'm a just a fan. A big fan, but still just a fan. I have no right to expect you to adhere to my expectations, or to project my own anxieties, failures, or allegiances onto you.
And I have no interest in fighting you.