“… it was the closest thing to death without harming myself.”
Simone Biles to Vogue magazine in a 2020 interview describing her rationale for sleeping as a way to cope with depression
Gymnast Simone Biles is an Olympic hero. She’s officially my hero. Unlike the record-setters and gold getters competing at the pandemic games in Tokyo, the source of Biles’ heroism is not what she did, but what she did not do.
In Tokyo last week, Biles said “enough.”
Citing mental health issues and the need to refocus, Biles stunned fans – and her federation – when she withdrew from three event finals, including the all-around competition, an event she has dominated since 2013.
In what will likely be her final Olympics.
Biles returned to competition on Tuesday, competing in the balance beam final. Her performance was solid, not spectacular, earning her a bronze medal.
“I wasn’t expecting to walk away with the medal,” Biles told reporters after her competition. “I was just going out there, doing this for me.”
“To have one more opportunity to be at the Olympics meant the world to me.”
But given the events of the last several days, Biles’ mere presence was more important than her performance. In fact, her bronze may be the most important medal of a legendary career.
The expectation for Biles at the Tokyo Games was that she would lead the United States to a haul of more gold medals. But last week, Biles stopped the train in mid-journey and got off.
She had had enough.
The last several days have been filled with intense debate and criticism about Biles’ decision to withdraw. I was surprised, initially, that Biles’ decision to pull out was met with an avalanche of denunciations by critics, some of whom went so far as to call Biles a coward.
Coward? Biles is one of the most courageous athletes of her generation. On gymnastics apparatus, she created routines so dangerous that judges were suspected of giving her low scores to discourage other gymnasts from following her lead. Away from the competition, Biles stood up to USA Gymnastics, criticizing the organization for failing to protect young athletes from disgraced trainer Larry Nassar, who before his conviction, molested hundreds of female gymnasts over a period of years.
Biles entered the Tokyo Games as the most decorated gymnast of all time. At the 2016 Games in Rio, Biles led the United States women’s gymnastics team to a third straight Olympic team gold medal.
In the same games, Biles won gold medals in the all-around, vault and floor exercises. She is a transformational, record-setting performer who has changed the face of her sport. She changed the nature of her sport with exhilarating and unprecedented routines. Like Venus and Serena Williams in tennis, Tiger Woods in golf, Biles inspired young African Americans and so many girls of color to become gymnasts.
Much of the criticism was being filtered through the traditional prism of “playing hurt.” Those of us in media have a script. We tell athletes to gut it out, tough it out. We’re accustomed to dealing with broken bones, fractures and torn muscles. We are conditioned to exhort athletes to suck it up; we extol the virtues of those who play through pain, who play hurt, because, isn’t that what life’s about? Playing with pain?
Even with the rise of sports psychology, many of us in sports media often regard mental health as more of an excuse than an injury. We call athletes who fail to perform under pressure “choke artists,” and weak-minded.
When Naomi Osaka pulled out of Wimbledon and then the French Open, explaining that she was sitting out to preserve her mental and emotional health, she was called in some circles a prima donna and chided for shirking her responsibility to the media.
Perhaps that changes now. Perhaps a legitimate new category on the injury report is mental health precaution.
The COVID-19-related restrictions many of us have endured over the last 18 months – isolation, apprehension over an unknown unpredictable virus – should have made us more sympathetic to athletes such as Biles and Osaka. Instead, our need to be entertained seemed to outweigh our capacity for compassion.
We live in a nation where the aggressive pursuit of excess runs in our blood and is part of the national character: More. Bigger. Best. Most.
The Olympics is a two-week carnival for that excess, and Biles was the poster child for our ambitions.
Last week, Biles hit the pause button.
Both she and Osaka rejected the standard we have set for superstar athletes. They stepped away from competition and media – because they could.
In Biles’ case, how many more medals did she need to win? How much more glory? How much more did she need? Why not share?
In the process of stepping away, Biles opened the door for two of her teammates to take their turn in the spotlight. Who knows whether or not this was calculated, but Biles had to know that her withdrawal meant an opportunity for two worthy teammates.
Sunisa Lee stepped in last week and won a gold medal in the Olympic all-around competition. Later in the week, MyKayla Skinner, who was not even supposed to compete in the Olympics and was on her way home, seized the opportunity to compete in the vault final after Biles withdrew. She won a silver medal.
Biles follows the Olympic tradition of Jesse Owens (1936), Wilma Rudolph (1960), Tommie Smith and John Carlos (1968), using the games to expose the often hypocritical underbelly of a nation that preaches liberty and justice to the world without practicing it at home.
Owens and Rudolph were celebrated for their performances – four gold medals for Owens in Berlin, three gold medals for Rudolph in Rome.
Biles’ impact is more like Smith’s and Carlos’, whose demonstration on the victory stand after winning gold and bronze medals in Mexico City was their stunning rebuke of oppression and inequality in the United States.
Over the last 18 months, Biles has supported the Black Lives Matter movement. She has been the outspoken advocate for gymnasts, even speaking out against USA Gymnastics. On Sunday, Biles expressed support via social media for shot-putter Raven Saunders, who won the silver medal and demonstrated on the podium by crossing her arms as a gesture of “the intersection where all people who are oppressed meet.”
Her “protest” at the Tokyo Games is far more nuanced and personal. Biles is the most decorated athlete in her sport. She has enjoyed enough success for two careers. She has been feted and well-compensated and, of course, bedecked with medals. None of those can bring happiness or peace of mind.
So in the midst of a pandemic, with U.S. media and federations hunting for gold and glory, the great Simone Biles stepped away in mid-competition to refocus and regain her bearings.
In the process and before the world, she reminds us of a lesson so ancient, so simple, yet so real and so relevant: All that glitters is not gold.