What Everyone Gets Wrong About Simone Biles
The Simone Biles story is a sad one. Given the long history of abuse suffered at the hands of Larry Nassar and the resulting mental distress, tragic is perhaps an even better description. America has rallied to her support and defense for prioritizing her mental well-being over competition. For choosing health and safety over gold.
I join that chorus of supportive voices when it comes to Simone’s decision not to compete in the indivdual all-around event. She has every right to choose the path that is best for herself, and she seems comfortable with the decision that she has made. Some will troll her decision to come to Tokyo in the first place — to take up someone else’s spot on the team, someone else who worked and trained and dreamed of the chance just as passionately as Simone — but that misses the crucial point that Simone had no idea that a personal crisis was looming for her. She was expecting a straightforward, normal (though highly media-hyped) Olympics. If she had expected anything like what has happened in Tokyo, it is more than likely that she would have opted out. But she didn’t know what was coming, and thus it’s unfair to hold her accountable for unforeseeable events.
But then there’s the team event, which is another situation entirely. And this is the critical distinction that has been missed by nearly every voice in the media. Yes, pulling out of an individual event for individual reasons is perfectly acceptable, but pulling out of a team event when you’re still capable of competing with your teammates, and potentially winning for them? Putting massive, nearly overwhelming stress on others in order to avoid stress on yourself? Is this something that we, as a country, should be rallying around as the sublime act of personal heroism that it’s being portrayed as? I am very hesitant to join that dubious chorus of support.
Yes, stress can be debilitating. Individual athletes such as Naomi Osaka have every right to step aside and relinquish that stress when it comes to their individual athletic pursuits. But how about the kicker rushed on to the field to attempt a last-second field goal in the Super Bowl? I’m guessing that he has lots of doubts swirling through his mind. Fear of failure. Nearly paralyzing anxiety. Saying “no, I’m not going to do it…someone else who’s not nearly as good as me, with no preparation or warning, should step up and try to take my place” would be a staggeringly selfish act. It would be a moment of self-serving cowardice — of abandonment of fellow warriors in their moment of need — so striking that the player would be universally vilified by players, sportswriters, and the viewing public at large. No one would rush to their defense. And rightfully so.
Simone’s situation is complicated by her history of sexual abuse, but she chose to compete despite that burden. She undertook her pledge to her teammates and the resulting vow of responsibility under the full knowledge of the demons that she carried with her. And yes, these demons were unimaginably strong. And yes, they certainly do demand deep sympathy, understanding, and support.
But again, what about her teammates? Were any of them perhaps carrying demons of their own? Were they not also perhaps nearly paralyzed with anxiety as they faced the biggest moments of their lives? Taking on the additional burden of having to pickup and carry Simone’s burden — through no choice of their own — comstituted a monumental transfer of stress. And the decision to transfer that stress was made by Simone without seemingly much consideration (especially from the adoring media) in regards to the potential deleterious impact to Team USA.
Well, it worked out in the end. Team USA won silver, and Simone’s decision was hailed as the factor that brought the silver home. But could a persevering Simone Biles on the floor exercises have turned that silver into gold for her teammates? Or conversely, could a teammate — flush with stress and anxiety from the sudden bombshell that Simone had dropped in her lap just minutes before — have slipped and fallen as a replacement in one of Simone’s events, thus severely injuring herself and costing her team any chance of even a bronze? Thank goodness that didn’t happen. But it easily could have. And if it did, would Simone’s decision still be hailed as heroic?
Probably not. And for that reason, we should perhaps view Simone’s team decision in a different light. After all, heroism shouldn’t be determined in hindsight by a positive outcome produced almost purely by good fortune. It should be determined by the bravery and consideration shown to others when that outcome is still very much hanging in the balance.