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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.

23 Responses

  1. You have no idea what Biles may be experiencing. Gymnasts, like ballet dancers, start training as if they were adult professionals at a very young age. It is gruelling and stressful to both body and mind. If Biles has decided that she needs a break or wants to leave her sport forever, that is her choice. I doubt it was an easy decision for her. I wish her the best and make no further judgements.

    It’s unfortunate that some people hate their jobs and never have the courage to leave them. For some, there is no option. No better job is available to them given their level of education, family obligations, etc. But for others, there is a choice. They choose to stay in professions they despise and live lives of quiet desperation. It must do something very destructive to their souls. I once knew a man like that.

  2. From what I’m reading, what Biles experienced in the last vault she did has a name – the “twisties.” There’s an article in The Washington Post about what these are and why they are so – daunting is the word that comes to mind. Also dangerous.

    Other sports have similar terms for when the athletes’ minds and bodies are at odds and the things they’ve trained their bodies to do are at odds with their minds. So they can’t perform. In gymnastics, experiencing “the twisties” can be deadly. If the gymnast lands wrong, they can severely hurt themselves or die.

    People talked about Biles being a “machine.” She had learned to cope with the stress and doubts. But we saw the first indications of what she was experiencing in the US Classic, US Nationals and Olympic trials. Her performance in the first day of the Olympic competition showed just how much her mental condition was affecting her performance. Biles has always had control with her great athleticism and power. She was showing the cracks in her control. And she is so powerful, if she looses (loses?) control, she risks injury much more than usual.

    I give her props for recognizing what was going on in time to take action. She wasn’t going t be able to power her way through – and she wanted the rest of the team to have a medal chance.

    I can’t imagine how terrible she feels; this was to be the cap on her illustrious career. Simone Biles will, IMHO, always be the best gymnast ever. And the support she is giving her teammates can’t be understated. They understand how bad it has to be for Biles to say “enough.”

    Link to the Washington Post article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/2021/07/28/twisties-gymnastics-simone-biles-tokyo-olympics/?utm_campaign=wp_main&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter

    Hope that worked. It is behind a paywall. The article is trending on Twitter.

    • It would have been horrific if she had continued to compete and sustained a serious, possibly life threatening injury. Thank goodness she understood her body and mind well enough to know that she was at risk before it was too late.

    • I’m with William on this one. The twisties sounds like just another word for the yips that plague baseball players. No body is perfect. But this case just seems too convenient for Biles.
      I watched the Olympic qualifying events. Biles was struggling back then. She fell off the beam at one point, she struggled to stick her landings on vaults and she was consistently out of bounds during her floor exercise. It wasn’t just a one off. It wasn’t the twisties. It was lack of control. She was pushing herself too hard and didn’t look like she had the discipline that comes with months of work going into the Olympics. Yes, there was a LOT of pressure on her during the trials but by golly, she was going to lead the effing team to victory even though she clearly, CLEARLY did not look ready for it.
      And I love to see Simone biles perform. She is amazing. She does things that no one else in the world can do. Spectacular dangerous things. We have seen her do them. But to do them consistently and perfectly up to Olympic standards, you need to have had a lot of practice. She just didn’t look like she had that consistency. If you have any doubts about what I’m saying, go back and watch the trials on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. Biles looked really uncomfortable about her performances back then. There was already panic in her eyes.
      I was very concerned about what would happen to this team. She looked worried during the trials. But it’s worse than that. There were two Americans who were excluded from the team competition. Jade Carey and Mykayla Skinner were forced to go into the Olympics as individual competitors and not as team members. Jade is a vaulter who locked up her individual spot early. As I watched biles, I began to think this whole system was messed up. There was already controversy about the team composition and the reason why Jade was competing as an individual. I think there was something acknowledged but unspoken. Biles has a ton of medals already. Why not let her concentrate on one or two apparatuses and let her off the hook for the team competition? The pressure would have been off of her. She could have concentrated all her efforts on vault or floor and not worried about beam or unevens. Unevens are not her strong suit.
      But no. That is not the NBC approved Up Close and Personal Olympic narrative. Biles was going to get her shit together and deliver the gold for the American team with gymnastic pyrotechnics. That was when Biles had a chance to gracefully step aside and say she didn’t want to participate in leading the team. Every gymnast in the world would have understood and applauded her decision -THEN. Now? It just looks like she couldn’t stand the thought of being humiliated because she couldn’t perform up to her own standards. I don’t buy the excuse that it’s dangerous. It’s always dangerous for gymnasts no matter what they do. Even the seemingly easy stuff can result in broken bones and torn muscles. What she couldn’t stomach was a less than stellar performance. But she knew that was going to happen during the trials. It was obvious. So, while I sympathize for her mental health and the immense pressure she was under, I sympathize more for her replacement who had no expectation of being on the team and concentrated on her individual medal. That’s unfair to her.
      I think we can blame our ridiculous Olympics media for most of this but a good portion of this blame should go to Biles for not resisting the pressure when she was given her team slot. I don’t want to see the very serious issue of mental health used as an excuse and cheapened as a result and I don’t like it that she used it. She should have just said she was not up to her usual athletic standards. I could get behind that. That would have opened the door to a debate about how the team was chosen and whether the right criteria was used. That would have been much more fair to Biles.

  3. I have to respectfully take issue with both WLP and RD on this one. There have been expert opinions that Biles was suffering from disorientation and lost situational awareness while doing her vaults. Think about that for a moment, please.

    A very high level of awareness of what her body is doing and where it is in space, was critical to her ability to do gymnastics literally no one else could do. Furthermore, without the microscopic, millisecond by millisecond awareness of her body and where it was in space, she was putting herself at risk of serious neck and head injury.

    The yips in golf or basketball mean you miss a shot. A lack of situational awareness in aerial gymnastics can lead to a broken neck. Capisce!?

    • I am not arguing with you. I am saying that her issues go back to this year’s Olympic trials. She was not performing well. Her situational awareness was OFF back then. She was overshooting absolutely everything. It was very clear that she was not conditioned enough to do what she was expected to do. But the pressure was on her to lead the team to victory that all the commentators were just passing it off like “she’ll get it together when the Olympics roll around”. You could tell from her face that she was scared shitless.
      I’m sorry, she should have bowed out then. Under no circumstances should she have put herself in the position of attempting difficult vaults and floor exercises while she wasn’t properly conditioned. It happens to a lot of athletes. Figure skaters go through it too. Their bodies change or they get taller. It throws everything off. They have terrible seasons. As far as I understand the yips, it has been in the context of pitchers who suddenly can’t throw like they used to or hitters who can’t hit go save their lives. The harder they try, the worse the problem gets. So there is some kind of psychological feedback mechanism that makes it worse.
      This is no shade on biles. She is a fantastic gymnast. She always will be. But this was a choice that she was aware of a couple of months ago. She should have stopped right then and given up her team spot to Carey, then she could have concentrated on only the one or two events that she felt she could comfortably get conditioned into by the Olympics. In other words, Carey and Biles should have traded places back then.
      As a result, both gymnasts were screwed.
      As I said before, the signs were there during the trials. Biles was really off. Sure she did some amazing things. But she just wasn’t ready for the whole shebang.
      Plus, mental illness is not a convenient excuse. It doesn’t sit well with me. I have people in my family with mental illnesses and I wouldn’t put this in the same category. Let’s just say she psyched herself out because her body wouldn’t cooperate and the media put too much pressure on her. That’s a pretty awful thing in itself. But no need to exaggerate.

  4. My second point is that we need to examine the International Olympic Committee’s role here. It’s tough enough for the athletes, who thought that their four year Olympic training regimes were about to peak in 2020, and then had to keep going. (Biles for one had intended to retire after the 2020 Games.) But what did the IOC do to support their athletes? NADA.

    The IOC did NOT require vaccination at the Games, but relies solely on masking and distancing — against the delta variant no less. The IOC, which receives $4 billion in TV revenue for the Games, could easily have afforded to vaccinate athletes coaches, and staff from poor countries/ countries without access to vaccines, but didn’t do that either.

    What the IOC did do — supposedly to protect athletes –is to limit the number of support people athletes could bring with them. Which is insane. Many pro athletes/ high level amateurs have their own staffs that they rely on — personal trainers, sports psychologists, nutritionists, the works. A close friend or family member too in some cases. They NEED this to perform consistently at the highest level so we couch potatoes can kick back and view the performance/ finished product. Sure, national teams and pro teams have such people on staff but in many issues the athletes need– and benefit from — personal assistance, confidants, people who act solely in their interest.

    Could (presumably vaccinated) personal support people have have helped Biles? We’ll never know. My point is, IOC, in very unusual and difficult circumstances for these Games, undercut their athletes every which way, unnecessarily. But that would be typical for one of the greediest, most corrupt, and most pretentious bodies in sport. Put it all together and it’s amazing that more athletes have not broken down at the Games. Or maybe many of them are barely holding it together privately at costs to mind and body none of us will know. Just as all too many people expect them to do, as a matter of course, for a job that does not even pay.

    I get the concern for the people who didn’t make the team. Really I do, they never got their shot that they had worked VERY hard for. But when an athlete is done, she is done, and such things can’t always be predicted in advance. Given all the superhuman things Biles has done in her career, I have to assume she toughed it out to her very capacious limit and no one outside has any right — especially in her case — to judge what that limit “should” or should not have been. But if that doesn’t compute, try running just one marathon (I’ve run six). I would never claim to have any idea what “real” athletes do, but I’ve had a small taste. It’s not the race day that matters, it’s the grind of training over many months and the cumulative stress that matter.

    • I will definitely agree with you there. The IOC should have required everyone to be vaccinated. It’s criminal that it didn’t.
      I will agree that someone should have advised her to change her plans. For someone with Biles background, it might have been very hard for her to say no. I think the US Olympic team didn’t do her any favors. It’s a good thing she pulled out when she did because her performance might have been career ending even without an accident. But the truth is she never should have agreed to it in the first place. Maybe we wouldn’t have won the gold medal with Carey. But after her trials, I had very serious doubts that Biles was going to be able to pull it off. In that circumstance, there should have been strategizing before the games started.
      I feel for her. I also feel for Carey. Carey stuck to her individual role partly because she would have been Biles logical replacement due to her strong vault and floor skills. She didn’t even try for a team spot because everyone assumed Biles was going to be spectacular. In the end, it made Carey look like a slacker because she wasn’t even trying. But she didn’t really have a choice. It’s pretty sad all around.

    • Just go and watch the trials on YouTube. You’ll see what I mean. Listen to the commentary and watch the performances.
      This was all sadly predictable.

      • I remember a couple of clips from the Trials and you are right about that, she was not in peak form then. I’m not as sure as you that Biles’s performance at the Games could have been predicted directly from her performance at the Trials — a top athlete like Biles might have had reason to believe that she could turn everything on when she needed to. Nonetheless you make a very defensible argument.

        You also make an excellent point re mental illness. Biles is much more than competent. She may not at the moment be able to deliver the peak performances she has graced us with in the past, but she is certainly not mentally ill. She may, for all I know, have some diagnosable disorder, something treatable that she can recover from, but less serious than the kind of mental illness that precludes a normal life. So I can see why, by your lights, Biles is not mentally ill, “just” hurting badly for whatever reason.

        One of those reasons might be, lingering PTSD from her abuse by Nassar. Add to that the terrible lack of support that she received from USAG, right down to having to hear, during the Games, new information about how the authorities heard about Nassar so long before the Denhollender investigation and continued to let Nassar escape prosecution until they had no choice.

        The way IOC is running the Games, might well remind gymnasts of how USAG had been running the show all along.

  5. Congrats to Suni Lee. Biles has been mentoring, and working with, the women on her team. That’s why they are performing at the top of their games, in spite of Biles dropping out.

    Fierce competitiveness is what makes professional boxers, football players, tennis players, etc, etc, stay and play, when they’ve clearly lost a step. Or two. Or twenty.

    Biles is as fiercely competitive, as they come.

    • I would not disagree, but here are a couple of comments Biles made. I did not take them out of context, I just saw them in that brief form.

      “This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself. I came in and I still felt I was doing it for other people,” a tearful Biles told reporters. “That just hurts my heart, that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”

      I will not try to figure out what exactly she was referring to. But it seems that she was unhappy about some things, and that this played some part in her decision not to compete further. Otherwise, why express this now?

      • Biles is a young woman who was sexually abused by her team doctor throughout her childhood and teenage years. When she said “this Olympic Games I wanted it to be for myself”, she meant she wanted to take back her power, to reclaim her selfhood and her love for gymnastics. Those precious things had been taken away from her by a monster named Larry Nassar. What about that do you not understand? What she wanted was not the glory or the spotlight, but the inner feeling that she had finally triumphed over a man who tried to destroy her. I hope she knows that she has won. She has more than survived.

  6. Looking at Simone Biles, I see nothing but the best of our citizenry…she was planning to retire after the 2020 Olympics, because her body was maxed out, but she hung in and put together the brilliant team surrounding her.

    Our country has a history of imposing demands on Black bodies, for our entertainment…I hope that is coming to an end.

  7. I’m wondering if this whole situation could motivate us to re-examine our culture and look at this from the flip side…rather than deciding whether or not we should be soldiering on through the stress of work…why is work, in our society, so incredibly stressful? Why are people routinely so overworked and overwhelmed, why is there so much pressure on everyone–including athletes? Could there be a way to center the well-being of humans a little more in our work culture?

    I applauded Simone’s decision, but I will freely admit that my reaction was biased due to my personal experience, as I was having one of my panic attack/anxiety weeks at work, and was pondering if I should take some time off for mental health myself.

    • Maybe we’ve taken a small step in that direction. I hope you can get that time off ((hugs))

      The “work yourself to death” culture needs a reboot.

    • I hope you can! It is very important, and I know that in our culture, it i hard to do. As I know you realize better than I, Europe mostly has a much more decent approach to work, giving everyone a month of or so vacation every summer. America is the country of the protestant ethic, and too many people are overworked, and suffer from serious stress issues.

      • The work ethic is a lie invented to make people feel guilty about not wanting to be slaves.

        Fuck yeah I’m a muthafuckin’ cynic. 😈

      • Oh yes, I get a big reminder of this every time I talk to my European relatives, who always seem to be going on vacation somewhere, and express great sympathy over the fact that I live in overworked America…LOL….

  8. I am very much enjoying watching our women’s beach volleyball team of April Ross and Alix Klineman. Three straight wins, and they seem to have great rapport. The last set was played in a driving rain!

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