I promised, from day one of this magical Open Court experience, that I would not be the hot take artist. I like to sit back, look at things, do some reporting and research, and then put together my thoughts. Radical, I know. Thoughts can be scary.
The case of what happened with GOAT gymnast Simone Biles this week only has solidified my approach. As you know by now, Biles, after her first event in the team final, withdrew because she was not feeling well. It was a shocking moment, as Biles was supposed to be far and away the best gymnast on the floor – and lead the U.S. to another team final gold.
No team final. No all-around. And judging by what she is saying, maybe no individual event finals unless she is better.
Biles has nothing to prove to anybody. They can all just peep her pre-Tokyo trophy case of six Olympic medals, 19 World Championships, and the three moves named after her in the sport. She has taken on USA Gymnastics, bearing unsparing cogent witness in the rightful flaming and shaming for their failures to protect her and so many others from Larry Nassar’s horrific abuse and overall broken system of coaching and oversight. Competing in Tokyo was going to be it for Biles at the Olympics, and she would also make some nice endorsement bank in the process. Sticking around had a lot of layers, a lot of out of the gym responsibility and complications. Her happy ending was due. Deserved. Earned in pain and hard work.
Biles explained what is happening, as it is STILL GOING ON, in an Instagram story on Friday morning, in perfect detail. It’s a mental block/anxiety trigger called the “twisties”, meaning, you lose the ability and confidence to track yourself in the air and the landing during a routine/move. That loss of orientation is terrifying…and utterly dangerous to the point of leading to a serious injury or even death. Gymnastics is up there in terms of injury – think paralysis, broken backs and necks, and closed head traumas. What goes up, must come down, (according to both Sir Isaac Newton and Blood, Sweat and Tears), and the balance beam or vault apparatuses do not magically soften or move to help you fall better.
It’s like the yips in golf or baseball players getting a block where they cannot throw to first. The twisties are real. Except you can’t die from the yips or botching a toss to finish off the grounder.
Biles is 24. She has been a gymnast for nearly two decades. She has lived with pain, abuse, disappointment, success, wealth, and fame during one hell of a ride. If she says she cannot compete, at the Olympics no less, I believe her. I honor her decision and wish her well.
The speculation machine has been spectacularly fired up, through the beast of social media. What is wrong is her? What is really wrong wrong with her? Is she a coward? Is she a hero? Did the media pressure get to her? Is this a sign of her crumbling under more racism and sexism? Is she some symbol for the snowflakification (new word alert) of America? Or is her withdrawal just a chance for idiots to spew shambolic dumbassery to get noticed?
Yep, why I sat back. I wanted to take in the chaotic show. I have seen enough. You have too. Some of you messaged me - thank you! - asking what I thought.
So here goes:
There are too many unmitigated asses who chose this moment to take their shots. They revealed more about themselves, their lack of empathy, character, and respect for another human being. Their “expert” revelations about an athlete and a sport they don’t care about were as thin as their ethics. The weak, then retracted, attempts at comedy about sexual abuse in the context of Biles. Never funny. I am not going to dignify them by screen shotting, uttering their names or otherwise identifying them. You know who they are. And if you don’t, even better.
The best state we can maintain is saying we don’t know them.
Sports is a weird world where most people never get to do it at a high level – and yet everybody is the expert on what happened. The woman who designs brakes for minivans at Ford, or the person running the farmer’s market will never have people actively saying they are doing their job wrong through talk radio, social media, and video. The visibility of performing comes with the cadre of experts who probably would end up in bed with back spasms for 4 days if they tried a cartwheel on their lawn.
Do these fools think Biles trained for 5 years, and then came to Tokyo and said, ‘Meh, I am good?” She wanted to compete. At the same time, there is nothing cowardly about admitting you’re not in a good place to be successful. Remember, Biles is doing acrobatically athletic moves of such high difficulty that nobody else can attempt them. The scoring system hasn’t caught up to her innovation and boldness to give her full credit. This is not roll-out-of-bed, do it on autopilot stuff. You need to be fully on. Or you break your neck, live, in front of the whole world.
Her decision is one I hope a top surgeon would make. Or an airline pilot. Or any other job where an off day could be deadly. Knowing our limits, being in touch with how we feel mentally and physically, are grown up things. Absolutely, we all have days when we are not feeling it. We get through it. That is adulting part. However, sometimes toughing it out means we assume too much risk.
There were questions from the Open Court audience about her stance if this will bring more discussion about mental health. The Olympics bring in a lot of people who are not regular sports fans. HOWDY AND WELCOME. The discussion about mental health and boundaries has been bubbling up all over the Olympic space for a while. Swimmers Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt have openly discussed their depression and anxiety. Phelps has been super effective on NBC, originally brought on as a swimming analyst. The addition of his thoughts on the mental health discussions across NBC’s platforms has been so good. I look forward to the book he says he wants to write about his struggles. We need it. Tennis players Naomi Osaka and Ash Barty have talked about how the pressure of tennis and the spotlight have hurt them. Barty quit tennis for a while to escape home to Australia, recalibrated, and came back even stronger. Osaka’s struggles this year have been well-documented.
Taking active care of mind and body is not solely dependent on the person. Biles has money, medals, and the ability to tap resources to work through things. Other athletes not in the same place. The pressure from coaches and country, needing to perform to maintain finances or national team status, stigma of asking for help, or a lack of mental health resources all could produce a very different decision at the Olympics. Biles had that path open. I don’t if I can say others can walk her path too.
But it always starts with one. And then others can follow. She made the right decision, at the right time, and that is it. No more discussion.
There’s the slow take.
See ya with a new Open Court on Monday.