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My Minority Opinion on Simone Biles

And by “minority,” of course, I mean less popular than the majority opinion. One shouldn’t need to have to explain that, but one wants to be careful these days.

We all know about Simone Biles, the extraordinary American gymnast who was one of the stars, maybe THE star of the 2016 Olympics. She has amazing talent. And being a Black woman in a sport which had so very few of them, was also cause for applause. This year, there is another Black woman gymnast, so maybe in some way Biles helped to open the sport to them, or maybe it would have happened, anyway, who knows?

Well, the gymnast I most rooted for last time, and the time before, was Aly Raisman, probably because she is Jewish, and there are not too many athletes at this level who are. And she has the Jewish mother who made funny faces of agony watching her daughter compete in a sport where one mistake can lose the contest. Aly actually outpointed Simone in one event in 2016, and Biles literally did not look too happy about it, though of course athletes can be very hard on themselves.

Going into this Olympics, a year delayed, Biles was the face of the U.S. Olympic teams, certainly on the female side, and probably overall. And then when the competition started, she rather surprisingly had problems in her opening events, made some missteps; and everyone commented about how unlike her this was. This can happen to even the best athletes of course; certainly we see a few major upsets in Olympic events. That is part of what the Olympics are all about. The world stage, and all the expectations and pressure.

Then suddenly, Biles decided to withdraw from the team event, saying that she wanted to focus on her mental health. This was her statement: “No injury, thankfully. And that’s why I took a step back, because I didn’t want to do something silly out there, and get injured. So I thought it was best if these girls took over and did the rest of the job, which they absolutely did, they’re Olympics silver medalists now. And they should be really proud of themselves for how they did last-minute, having to (adjust).

“It’s been really stressful, this Olympic Games. I think just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week, it’s been a long Olympic process, it’s been a long year. So just a lot of different variables, and I think we’re just a little too stressed out. But we should be out here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case.”

Asked what was next for her in Tokyo, she said, “Yeah, we’re just going to take it a day at time. I know that tomorrow, we’ll have a half day, or at least a morning off, so it’ll be a good mental rest. So we’ll just take it from there.”

She praised her teammates. She said, about telling the coaches, “And I was like, I think the girls need to do the rest of the competition without me. And they (the coaches) were like, “I promise you, you’re fine. We watched you warm up.” “And I said, no, I know I’m going to be fine, but I can’t risk a medal for the team, so I need to call it” She said that as she warmed up it went a bit better, “but then when I came out here, it was like, no the mental’s not there, so I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself.”

Subsequent to that, Biles announced her withdrawal from the all-around Individual event, where she had won the gold medal in 2016.

Now for my personal reaction, which is the minority opinion. Biles deserves credit for being forthright in talking to the media, and for supporting her teammates. But she withdrew because she was very disappointed and upset for not doing well, certainly not per the expectations she and the world audience had for her. Now, that is understandable for anyone, and certainly a world-class athlete, to be down on themselves after not doing as well as expected. It happens to everyone, the vast majority of us not world-famous athletes, at some point in our lives, and more than once. But Biles just walked away from the Olympics and her team.

Her teammates seem supportive. Aly Raisman was, saying that people do not understand the immense pressure involved. And Biles obviously had the right to walk away. But right in the middle of the competition? It certainly sounds that she felt that she was not in the right mental frame of mind. This may well have related to her disappointment in her performance so far. That is understandable, but you don’t just walk away, and certainly not in a team event, where your teammates count on you, the star, and have worked so hard to get here.

It ultimately is not that big of deal even so, it is just athletic competition. But now we are seeing great praise being lavished on Biles for being “brave.”Articles say that Biles has now drawn a focus on the issue of mental health in the workplace. Well, mental health issues are often hidden because of the negative connotations. We should all empathize with that. But how far does that go in general? For example, I practiced as an attorney for about 20 years, after assiduously trying to avoid doing it, and having another career, and lots of school. If I were in the middle of a Trial, and maybe I did not feel that I was doing too well, my opponent was scoring the points, could I just walk away, tell the firm that I would like someone else to take over?

Oh, I could do it, but at the cost of having my career ruined, at least at that firm. Now, if someone had an absolute mental breakdown, and that does happen, there is more understanding of that in general, in at least some workplaces. But how far do we want this to go? How many of us have been at work, in or away from the office, and do not want to be there? Or we get criticized for something and it upset us? Should that be sufficient reason for just taking a few days or weeks off?

How can anyone measure mental health, away from the extremes? Most of us think that we are supposed to accept much of the stress attendant to most jobs, and just soldier on. Athletes usually have that mindset. Can you imagine if a pro football quarterback, for example, threw a few interceptions, then told his coach and team that the mental aspect was just not there, and that he did not want to play further in the game? He could do it, but his career with that team would essentially be over. Maybe he could blame it on draconian coaches, and get traded to another team, and have a new start. That has happened, though rarely. But it is part of the code of sports, that unless you are physically injured, or have some tragic event, you play. That may be right or wrong in a larger sense, but what would be a better approach; see how you were feeling that day or that moment, and then decide whether or not you wanted to play?

“The Olympic Ideal” seems to include the idea of competing as hard as you can. I have seen Olympians competing in marathon running events, and who are simply not as good as the top competition, trail by an entire lap or more, and yet keep on running until they get to the finish line. I have seen all sorts of gymnasts miss the landing, and get up, try to keep from showing how upset they are, and keep participating. Skaters fall and lose any chance to win the event, but they get up, even in tears, and finish the routine. I am always touched by that, it shows courage and determination, and a high regard for the spirit of Olympic competition.

I don’t think that Biles exemplified that, when she pulled out of events because she felt that her mental state was not there. She was not injured. She was very disappointed with her routines so far, and did not want to do less than the extremely high expectations she had of her performance, and of winning gold medals. Many athletes have that, but they compete, even when they achieve less than they had hoped.

Maybe the concept of being a role model is overrated and unfair, though some seem to want to be that. I am certainly not saying that Simone Biles is a bad role model, or that she has to try to be one at all. And maybe she did indeed shine a light on mental health issues in the workplace. Maybe this is a welcome change from the concept that you have to persevere, and never quit, even if you do not feel up to it on certain days in certain spheres of life.

Or maybe Biles is being given undeserved adulation for indulging herself, and deciding that if she wasn’t performing at her highest level, she would just stop competing, right in the middle of the Olympics, no matter what that meant to her teammates or coaches. Very obviously, opinions will differ on all of this, and I am aware that mine is a minority one, but I do think it is worth discussion. Some people with a public persona get criticized for anything, and some get praised no matter what they do. One can wonder about that, as it does seem to echo second grade at times.