TTwo days ago, when it was impossible to imagine that Simone Biles would withdraw from the Olympic Games team competition, and after the general competition, it would have been easy to predict the reaction in the United States. And, like so much in America, opinion was often divided politically.
The immediate reaction was overwhelmingly positive. USA Today called Biles’s decision “important” and a “powerful message.” The New York Times praised the 24-year-old for putting her “mental health first and the expectations of others, at best, second.” And after Biles spoke about the mental exhaustion that is endemic to being the best, the Washington Post asked, “What are we doing, breaking our athletes?”
On NBC’s primetime broadcast, swimmer-turned-commentator Michael Phelps, who has been candid about his own mental health struggles, spoke in support of Biles, telling viewers that his story “broke my heart.” He added: “I hope this is an eye-opening experience … an opportunity for us to get on board and even further blow up this mental health issue.”
Phelps knows very well the pressures of being the GOAT, of extending an Olympic career, of exhausting himself to remain the best. But that’s only part of the Biles experience. Last summer was supposed to be his swan song, but the pandemic delayed the 2020 Games and required another year of training, of pushing his body to master the gravity-defying stunts that carry perhaps the highest risk of injury of any sport. .
On top of that, Biles is a black woman in a country facing racial reckoning, where her gender still fights for equality in all areas of public life. She is also a survivor of abuse, a former patient of Larry Nassar, the disgraced US team doctor who will spend the rest of his life in prison for crimes related to the sexual abuse of underage gymnasts.
Despite its obvious burden and the fundamental importance of mental health, which Biles, Naomi Osaka and others have highlighted, some have portrayed Biles’ decision to step down not as a courageous stance, but as a resignation in the face of adversity. In the media, that dialogue (with the exception of a column by Piers Morgan in the Daily Mail who accused Biles of being selfish and unable to withstand the rigors of Olympic competition) comes almost entirely from right-leaning US platforms.
At Fox, a growing group of white male right-wing sports talking heads sharpened their claws, ignoring the racial and gender undertones of Biles’ experience. On his Fox Sports radio show, Doug Gottlieb claimed that Biles has faced no criticism in his career. “For years, women have said, we all want to be judged as equals,” she opined. “Generally, we don’t have any kind of criticism towards our women’s sports teams. On the one hand, you want to be seen, treated and rewarded the same as men, but on the other hand, whatever you do, don’t be critical of us. “
Clay Travis has taken over many of the radio slots occupied by Rush Limbaugh since the conservative commentator’s death. On another Fox show, Travis also said that Biles has been held to a different standard and said he should apologize to his fellow gymnasts for quitting smoking. “She was not there for them, and that represents a fundamental violation of the most important aspect of team sports.” And super-conservative pundit Charlie Kirk went even further on his podcast, calling Biles “selfish,” “immature,” “an embarrassment to the country,” and a “sociopath.” He added: “Simone Biles just showed the rest of the nation that when the going gets tough, you shatter into a million pieces.”
On Wednesday, Boston Celtics star and US team member Jayson Tatum retweeted a video of Kirk’s show. “Is it so difficult to be supportive and empathetic with what others are going through?” he wrote. “This is someone’s daughter and her health [you’re] referring to. I wonder if he has children and how someone would feel as a parent talking about their children in this way. … Simone is a hero! “
Half of America, at least. And the other half, and his rhetoric, make it easy to understand why this hero struggles to carry his burden.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism