Twenty-four hours later, I’m feeling better and better about this take from yesterday afternoon.
Especially now that Biles has quit not just the team competition but the individual all-around competition as well.
My point was that people on both sides of this are grossly overstating their case. On one side is the “tough it out” group that wants to insult Biles for lacking fortitude, never mind that she’s been the world’s greatest gymnast for upwards of a decade and is the reining Olympic all-around champion. She has nothing left to prove. She’s faced the toughest possible pressure in the past and responded by making her sport look like child’s play. Here’s Jason Whitlock calling her “cowardly” at length…
Come here the truth and nothing but the truth on Simone Biles and the Olympic Fold. Everyone is scared. I'm not. https://t.co/EIRx82sXbA
— Jason Whitlock (@WhitlockJason) July 27, 2021
…and Piers Morgan lighting into her for quitting on everyone:
What exactly is so courageous, heroic or inspiring about quitting on your team and country in an Olympics?
Simone Biles was so traumatised by her experience that she reappeared, all smiles, a little later to cheer her on the team she’d abandoned as they tried and failed to win the Gold they’d have almost certainly won if she’d stayed and battled on.
That’s a weird optic for a sporting champion, isn’t it?…
One of the worst aspects of social media, especially Twitter, is not just the way it now celebrates losing, failure and quitting as greater achievements than winning, success and resilience, but the vicious manner it bullies and shames into silence anyone who deviates from this warped view of sporting achievement…
Get back out there Simone, and don’t get sucked into all the weak woke failure-loving Twitter nonsense – you’re too great a champion to be labelled a quitter.
The point missing from all this is that Biles’s lack of focus had already almost caused a severe injury. Various gymnasts and experts in the sport have spent the past day trying to explain to laymen how frightening Biles’s botched vault on Tuesday was:
Most non-gymnastics fans do not understand the seriousness of what happened because she landed on her feet. Every elite gymnast I’ve talked to has said that Simone Biles’s vault was TERRIFYING and it’s a miracle she put that vault to her feet & avoided seriously injuring herself.
— Deanna Hong (@DeannaHong) July 28, 2021
Gymnasts call what she experienced “the twisties,” where essentially you lose your muscle memory of how to orient yourself in space relative to the floor to ensure that you’ll land safely. It sounds a bit like vertigo. Think of a baseball player getting “the yips,” where suddenly he can’t make short routine throws anymore and loses confidence in his basic skills. In Biles’s case, the yips potentially means corkscrewing through the air with the force of several G’s and landing on your neck.
Dominique Moceanu won gold with the U.S. women’s team at the 1996 Olympics and says Biles pulling out if she had “the twisties” was a no-brainer:
In our sport, we essentially dive into a pool w/ no water. When you lose your ability to find the ground—which appears to be part of @Simone_Biles decision—-the consequences can be catastrophic. She made the right decision for the team & herself. @bisping
— Dominique Moceanu (@Dmoceanu) July 28, 2021
The proper analogy isn’t to a basketball or even a football player deciding not to play due to a bout of anxiety under pressure. It’s more like a trapeze artist deciding not to perform. If you’ve suddenly lost your confidence in your ability to judge where the trapeze bars are in space, then … yeah, you might want to sit it out. The consequence of poor performance won’t be an airball or a fumble, it’ll be death potentially. That’s not hypothetical: Philip Klein notes the case today of an American gymnast who misstepped during a vault, hit the vaulting horse head-on, and ended up paraplegic before eventually dying at age 18.
With the stakes that high, Biles couldn’t just “tough it out” the way, say, Michael Jordan with the flu could. And as many have pointed out today on Twitter, didn’t Jordan himself spend several years away from basketball after his father was murdered to recover from his grief? He knows what it’s like not to be able to perform up to your expectations when you’re distracted.
But the fact that we can sympathize with Biles’s predicament doesn’t justify the clammy celebrations of her withdrawal that are piling up online today. That’s the other side of the dispute, the faintly Orwellian “losing is winning” camp. Morgan is unfortunately right about the commentariat’s habit of actively extolling “losing, failure and quitting” when the loser is likable and their failure is relatable, due to some human frailty. It’s an extension of the anti-bullying ethic behind so much Internet discourse (and which is used so often to justify bullying the “bullies,” ironically). The words “mental health” in particular are almost talismanic, a cue that the person suffering is not to be criticized lest mental illness be further stigmatized. Under those circumstances, failure isn’t just unfortunate and forgivable, it’s treated as admirable and glorious, even heroic. Dan McLaughlin:
Second, it is a good thing to destigmatize discussing and seeking treatment for mental health. But the purpose of that is so that people can go on with their lives. We should not glorify using mental-health issues as an excuse to quit, even when (as in the case of Biles) quitting was the only sensible option. This is part of a broader tendency these days to medicalize our language and to celebrate victims and suffering rather than celebrating heroism, accomplishment, perseverance, and endurance. What a society chooses to glorify and encourage, it gets more of.
If you think he’s exaggerating about the press glorifying Biles’s failure, have a look:
The last one is my favorite since it implies that Biles dropping out of the 2016 Olympics due to anxiety instead of competing and steamrolling the competition, as she did, might have been more laudable.
It’s humane and compassionate to feel for her at an agonizing moment in her career and want to go to bat for her. “She’s still the greatest ever no matter what happened this week” is a fine (and accurate) take. “We shouldn’t forget that even the best athletes are human beings with human foibles” is another one. But calling her a “hero” for choking goes beyond that and veers into something more like propaganda, where being the best gymnast ever, enduring all the work and pain and pressure that entailed, is less impressive than finally buckling under all of it. Consolation for failure is one thing, glorification of it is quite another.