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Simone Biles Isn’t Fearless. That’s A Good Thing.

By demanding robotic perfection, Biles’s detractors are denying her humanity.
July 28, 2021
Simone Biles Isn’t Fearless. That’s A Good Thing.
USA's Simone Biles looks on during the artistic gymnastics women's team final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on July 27, 2021. (Photo by Loic VENANCE / AFP) (Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)

Simone Biles pulled out of the Tokyo Olympic gymnastics finals for the women’s artistic team all-around on Tuesday morning, citing mental health concerns. Her decision came following the vault finals where she performed fewer turns in the air than planned and had an uncharacteristically shaky dismount. Following her choice to withdraw, the U.S. team was able to hold on to the silver medal while the Russian Olympic Committee team took the gold.

The 24-year-old’s withdrawal comes on the heels of Japanese tennis pro Naomi Osaka’s recent decision to step back from competition as well, also for mental health reasons. Osaka lost in a third-round match against the Czech Republic’s Markéta Vondroušová, and left the Tokyo Games without a medal. The two star athletes have overwhelmingly been met with support from the public following a year of COVID restrictions and increased awareness and acceptance of the importance of taking mental health seriously.

And COVID is not the only extenuating circumstance surrounding this year’s Olympics for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team. Back in April, in an interview with NBC’s Today, Biles explicitly stated that part of her motivation to return to the Olympics this year was to hold USA Gymnastics accountable following the 2018 trial and conviction of Larry Nassar, who sexually abused her and hundreds of other girls across decades.

“Because I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side,” Biles told Hoda Kotb.

Despite these externalities there is still a chorus of irrational denigrators who see Biles’s decision to pull out as a betrayal rather than a sound judgement call. In an article titled “Simone Biles is a quitter,” Amber Athey declares in the Spectator that “Biles may be the most skilled gymnast ever, but a true champion is someone who perseveres even when the competition gets tough.” To suggest that Biles—who may yet participate in some of the remaining individual gymnastic events she qualified for—isn’t a true champion and hasn’t persevered boggles the mind. There is a difference between quitting and recognizing limitations and ceding the spotlight to others when the risk is too great. There is maturity and grace in knowing when to work through pain and when to stop.

Sports psychologist Jim Afremow, author of The Champion’s Mind and several other books, said in a Tuesday interview with The Bulwark that “This is just a perfect example of the power of the mind either to help us achieve things that no one thought were possible—as Simone has done throughout her career—but then how it can also become our own worst enemy when it matters most.”

Athey’s screed against Biles is full of illogical assertions and rhetorical questions demeaning the gymnast.

Most well-adjusted people recognize Biles as the indisputable GOAT—greatest of all time—in gymnastics: She is a 5-time World Champion, and the most decorated gymnast—male or female—of all time, with 25 World medals, 19 of which are gold. In the 2016 Summer Olympics she won 4 individual gold medals. She hasn’t lost an all-around competition in eight years.

These achievements do not satisfy Athey, though, who vacillates from being stunned someone of Biles’s caliber could be so mentally unfocused it jeopardized her performance to then detailing the trouble Biles had during the qualifying rounds and concluding, “Is it all that surprising that someone this overconfident—some might say arrogant—would struggle to mentally rebound from a poor performance?” Which is it? Is Biles so superhuman that any flaw is alarming or is she so conceited and overhyped it’s foreseeable she would fail in the face of adversity? To demand robotic perfection is to deny humanity.

Athey isn’t the only one damning and denying Biles her humanity. One refrain among the predominantly male couch critics is to point to Kerri Strug’s 1996 performance on an injured ankle. “Sorry, Simone Biles, The Olympics Isn’t About You, It’s About Winning For America,” some guy at the Federalist writes.

But of course in an obvious and important sense, it is about her. In order to perform well, to be in the best possible mental state to compete, “you have to play your sport for yourself, for your own joy and your own satisfaction,” says Afremow. “And everything else is an added bonus.”

“We want to create all this drama, the us-versus-them, this-country-versus-that-country, but at the end of the day, it’s you-versus-you,” says Afremow, who has worked with several Olympic competitors. “The intrinsic motivation is so important, what we tend to get caught up in is the extrinsic motivation: what are other people gonna think, awards, those kinds of things. And then it becomes more of a burden.”

The comparison to Strug is not a good one. She didn’t execute that vault “for America” and she certainly didn’t martyr her own wellbeing and safety for reply guys in 2021 to use her as the standard for sacrifice in pursuit of athletic excellence. Strug makes this perfectly clear on the very first page of her memoir:

This was the most critical moment of a lifetime spent enduring challenges and setbacks. . . . Very few people knew why I kept going in spite of everything and faced only one choice on that unforgettable day in Atlanta. . . . After fourteen years of putting up with so many difficulties and sacrifices, the pain and pressure of one moment were not going to stop me from giving my dream one more run. I wasn’t trying to be a hero. I was trying to hit the routine of my life. . . . Olympic glory? Infamy? I only knew that one way or another, there would be closure for all the wounds left open after fourteen years of devoting everything to the sport I loved.

Although Strug discusses her love of her teammates and her strong wish to win with them, her account is certainly not one of simplistically trying to win for her team or for America. It’s a story of a young woman who, like other Olympic champions, was pushed to such extremes during training that she “felt like screaming.”

Remembering how Larry Nassar began his long history of abuse just months after Strug’s performance, it is sickening to think of the USA Gymnastics team’s evolution and mishandling of so many girls’ lives.

Too often, America valorizes suffering in order to avoid grappling with abuse, mistreatment, and oppression.

Also joining the anti-Biles parade is noted women’s gymnastics expert Charlie Kirk, who definitely knows the difference between an Amanar vault and a Yurchenko. Incensed by Biles’s decision to not risk gravely injuring herself, Kirk now thinks she is a “sociopath” and “weak” person who gave a gift to the Russians.

Then there are the other usual suspects of Very Online MAGA-adjacent Just Asking Questions types rehashing versions of Athey, the Federalist, and Kirk’s troll fodder on Twitter. They are boring and attention-seeking and I don’t care to indulge them, but I’ll leave this right here:

“There’s a lot of nuance” in making decisions about competition at the highest levels of sports, yet “for cognitive economy we want things to be simple as all-good or all-bad,” Afremow says of critics trying to make Biles out to be the bad guy. But she didn’t let her team down, she demonstrated a different kind of leadership. By stepping down before the uneven bars, Biles gave her teammate Sunisa Lee the spotlight. Lee went on to score the highest marks on the bars anyone has received in Tokyo so far.

Would you rather watch someone competing joyfully confident or someone white-knuckling their way through dread? Even if you see this question chiefly as a matter of patriotic pride—which, again, is far from the best way to think about it—patriotism is defined as love or devotion to one’s country, not fearful and defensive nationalist rigor.

Here’s another hypothetical scenario for all these keyboard warriors who know so much about the mind of a girl carrying the weight of representing her country on the world stage while defying gravity twisting through routines at the very limits of human physical capability: What would their narrative be if she went out there psyched-out and performed her floor routine—the one with feats so complicated they’ve only ever been attempted by her and thereafter been named for her—and landed on her neck?

Fear is healthy. The amygdala is designed to protect us from putting ourselves in danger.

“At the end of the day, we’re human, too, so we have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,” Biles said after her decision to pull out.

“When you’re younger, you have that fearlessness of youth,” Afremow says. “But you don’t have that wisdom of experience knowing all the things that could go wrong. Now she has that wisdom of experience.”

Hannah Yoest

Hannah Yoest is an editor and the art director of The Bulwark.