Simone Biles Doesn't Exist To Make America Proud
It isn't an embarrassment. It isn't heroism. It just is.
Simone Biles, broadly understood to be the best gymnast of all time, withdrew on Tuesday from the Olympic team event, citing a medical condition. With Biles at the helm, Team USA was favored to win the top prize; without her as anchor, her three colleagues snagged second-best to Russia. Today, Biles announced she will also abstain from the all-around final, a competition she was almost without question expected to win.
That medical condition, Biles later revealed, was her mental health. Her disclosure elicited widespread encouragement, but also widespread scorn. "Simone Biles is a quitter," said Ben Maller of Fox Sports. "Are 'mental health issues' now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport?" asked British commentator Piers Morgan. "What a joke." UFC fighter Michael Bisping distilled it down in a tweet that generated a heap of positive engagement: "Quitters Never Win."
All told, those criticisms were relatively mild compared to some of the darker corners of American punditry. Simone Biles is a "selfish sociopath" and a "shame to the country," said the right-wing provocateur Charlie Kirk. "What an absolute embarrassment," noted The Daily Wire's Matt Walsh, who prides himself on his Christian commentary. "But in some ways an appropriate representation of a country that has gone soft."
Many others came to her defense. Though Biles simplified it as a mental health issue, the way that manifested, she said, was with the "twisties," a little-known disconnect experienced by some gymnasts where you lose control of your body mid-stunt, unable to tell your limbs to twist in the way they usually do.
For Biles, those mental gymnastics come with some life-threatening consequences, when considering the gymnast's repertoire is, by far, the most hazardous of all time—so much so that her judging potential, partially determined by difficulty level, was downgraded to disincentivize other gymnasts from even attempting the maneuvers she takes on. Her signature move—the "Biles"—is a triple-twisting double tuck that sees her careen through the air with more contortions than ever performed by any other human being.
In other words, the stakes of Biles' routine are high. She could, for instance, land on her neck. And Biles is old for gymnastics: At the ripe age of 24, she calls herself the "grandma" of Team USA, in a sport where some of her competitors are almost a decade younger.
Those familiar with the competition were thus quick to defend the decision as magnanimous. She was actually helping the team, some said, as the score she posted on vault—the warmup event she did before withdrawing—was a 13.766, so low that, had she continued along that line, a medal may have been out of the question entirely. "I am not going to lose a medal for this country and these girls," said Biles, "because they've worked way too hard to have me go out there and lose a medal." Others took it a step further, deeming it heroism, or, as The New Yorker put it, "radical courage."
But I'm not interested in those arguments. Here's what I am interested in: the very simple and radical idea that Biles' decision was hers to make, because she doesn't owe viewers, or the country, anything at all. No one is entitled to her performance simply because she is the best in the U.S.—and the world—at a sport. It isn't an embarrassment. It isn't heroism. It just is.
Those reaming hardest into Biles were generally political types of the national conservative variety, a subset of right-wingers that place an obligatory allegiance to the nation above all else. Their demand that (some) individuals put country above self undergirds the entire ideology of "America First."
Yet Simone Biles' team silver medal does not belong to the U.S. writ large just because she wears the country's colors on her leotard. Nor do her 25 World Championship medals—the most of any other female gymnast—or the 5 medals she earned at the 2016 games. They are hers. Kirk and Walsh did not help her get them, and they lose nothing by her not nabbing more this time around.
The spectacle of the Olympics and the ensuing camaraderie can sometimes make us forget that we were not the ones to train for 16 years, the majority of Biles' short life, sacrificing a normal childhood and young adulthood for a grueling existence.
I assume Biles was expecting to be crowned the all-around winner for her second Olympic games, an exceptionally rare superlative in the sport. It won't happen. Although Biles is capable of some superhuman feats, she is, after all, still human. And that's fine.