She shocked the world this morning by pulling out of the team gymnastics competition after it had begun, depriving Team USA of the greatest woman gymnast ever. They ended up finishing a respectable second behind the g-ddamned Russians. Initially it was reported that Biles was dealing with a “medical issue,” which made sense in light of her surprisingly poor performance during the vault, the one event she participated in. Had she strained something or, worse, torn something?
No, she was fine, it turned out. Physically fine.
Mentally was a different story.
The four-times Olympic champion explained that she decided not to compete as she had been struggling mentally in recent days and after a difficult opening vault, so she decided that she wanted to “take a back seat” with full faith in her teammates to win a medal. When asked later what her goal was for these Games, Biles replied: “To focus on my wellbeing. You know there’s more to life than just gymnastics.”…
But speaking after the competition, Biles told reporters: “After that vault, I was like: ‘I’m not in the right headspace, I’m not going to lose a medal for this country and for these girls’ because they worked way too hard for me to go out there and have them lose a medal.”
Biles said that her workout on the morning before she was due to compete was “OK” but during the five-and-a-half-hour wait her composure deteriorated: “I was just shaking and I could barely nap. I’ve just never felt like this going into a competition before and I tried to go out here and have fun. Warmup at the back went a little bit better but once I came out here I was like: ‘No, mental is not there so I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself.’”
The question “Did she choke?” actually contains two different questions:
1) Did she crack under pressure?
2) Should she have insisted on competing anyway despite the anxiety she was feeling?
I think the answer to the second one is easy: Gymnastics at an elite level is too dangerous a sport to participate in if your concentration isn’t where it needs to be. That’s especially true for Biles, who performs feats so difficult that other women don’t even attempt them. Two months ago she landed a Yurchenko double pike vault, the first female to do so in competition. (Few men have ever done it, per NBC.) If her head’s not in the game, she could break her neck. “At the end of the day it’s like we want to walk out of here, not be dragged out of here on a stretcher,” she told reporters after dropping out. Even if she thought she could perform safely, performing below standard could have cost Team USA a medal. By stepping back, she made way for another world-class gymnast to replace her. They almost won gold.
So, not competing was the right move once she decided she couldn’t go. But did she crack, or choke, by deciding she couldn’t go?
What would we say if Tom Brady decided on Super Bowl Sunday that he was anxious and distracted and felt sure that the back-up QB would perform better than he, the greatest of all time, would? Is there any doubt?
In fairness to Biles, she has a lot on her plate in Tokyo even by the standards of top athletes in elite competitions. She’s the undisputed GOAT, was expected to win as many as six gold medals (she already has four), and is probably the highest-profile athlete on the entire U.S. Olympic team outside of men’s hoops. On top of that, she’s dealing with trauma. She was one of the many women sexually abused by former team doctor Larry Nassar and has suffered depression from it, which she’s treated with therapy and medicine. “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times,” she wrote yesterday on Instagram.
And she’s made no secret of the fact that being known as the greatest ever for so long, with all the expectations that brings, has worn on her. “I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to. I don’t know if it’s age, I’m a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics. I feel like I’m also not having as much fun,” she said today. “I came in and it felt like I was still doing it for other people, so that just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.” It sounds like she should have retired before the Games rather than forge on and make herself miserable to the point where she cracked in front of the cameras.
Instead she tried to tough it out, at least at first, with a series of miscues the result: “During that qualification on Sunday, Biles and some of her teammates made uncharacteristic mistakes because they were nervous. Biles stumbled on her balance beam dismount, taking a huge step and several tiny ones backward. On the floor exercise, she stepped so far out of bounds that she slid down the edge of the slanted, raised competition surface. On vault, she stepped off the mat after landing.” She may pull out of the Games entirely after throwing in the towel during the team event today. From six golds to a DNP.
At the Spectator, Amber Athey calls her a quitter and argues that the assessment that she wasn’t fit to compete should have been made by Biles much sooner:
The timing of Biles’s decision suggests it had something to do with the mistakes she made during the team qualifying round. Biles flew way off the mat during her floor exercise, took a major step off the vault landing strip and bobbled part of her balance beam routine. In sports, mental toughness is key. It is a necessity to be able to recover from errors like this without having a breakdown. Biles, however, has not lost an all-around competition in eight years and emblazoned one of her Olympics leotards with a goat, referencing her ‘GOAT’ status. Is it all that surprising that someone this overconfident — some might say arrogant — would struggle to mentally rebound from a poor performance?…
Biles’s decision also affected her teammates and her country. She chose not to leave until the middle of the competition, when it would have the biggest impact on the other US gymnasts. Several of them had to compete last-minute in events for which they had not prepared. And, in taking the pressure off herself, Biles unloaded even more onto her three much-younger teammates. Will the media and the US gymnastics team consider the effect that Biles’s withdrawal may have had on their mental health?
Was fear of injury the driving concern that convinced her to drop out or was it fear of performing badly for the first time and tarnishing her legacy? “I had a mental-health issue that left me unable to compete” is a more palatable outcome than humiliating oneself in front of a global audience.
Either way, Dan Foster knows what’s coming next. Sensitivity to mental health and compassion for the agony Biles must be feeling will lead the commentariat towards concluding that what she did by dropping out wasn’t merely understandable, it was downright heroic:
I'm not denigrating all-time great Biles. That's the point! She's great. But there is a totally bizarre reflex among a segment of the Online that everything has to be either evil or Slay Queen Heroism. It doesn't.
— Foster (@foster_type) July 27, 2021
I’m expecting a round of hot takes along the lines of “Ackshually, Simone Biles’s Olympic choke did more for her country by drawing attention to mental illness than winning 8,000 gold medals ever did.” And that’s what it was, a choke, as we’d have no difficulty saying in the case of a male athlete like Brady or Ben Simmons or LeBron James if he decided before the NBA Finals that he wasn’t in the right “headspace” to compete. Biles deserves sympathy for what she’s dealing with and she made the right call in not risking injury once she concluded that she couldn’t go. But Foster’s right: We can be sympathetic while still calling it what it is, and without celebrating it.