She has wowed us, entertained us, and inspired us with her amazing feats of strength and endurance as an Olympic gymnast. It’s not a stretch to say that Biles has accomplished things on the international stage that are unprecedented. So, when Biles had to inexplicably withdraw from the individual all-around competition, it elicited quite a few reactions, and not all of them favorable.
First, we need to acknowledge that we live in an era when everyone has to have a published take on every news item all the time. Twenty years ago, I didn’t know what some random person five states away thought of an Olympic athlete and I was probably better off not knowing.
But here we are, in this kind of free-for-all, unfiltered slough of hot takes and opinion. I love this line from my friend Dana McCain: “Suddenly, middle-aged guys who haven’t taken the stairs since the second Bush administration wanted to lecture Simon Biles about grit, dedication, and mental toughness.”
Second, few of us understand the pressure an athlete like Simone Biles endures to rise to the top of the gymnastics world. I’ve been a fan of sports my whole life, but mostly team sports like basketball, football, and baseball. The pressure on these professional athletes is immense and unyielding, even more so in a highly critical fishbowl of this social media age.
I think the pressure on athletes in individual-type sports like gymnastics is even higher, the lens focused more closely, and the opportunity to fail under the big lights easier. And consider that, unlike professional team sports, the Olympics is once every four years and before the widest possible audience. The discipline to get to that level is enormous.
Third, Biles has never done this before. In fact, she’s only ever displayed absolute mental toughness on the biggest stage, time after time. This is an athlete who has been so rigorous in her approach, she’s forced the Olympic committee to change the rules to accommodate her ground-breaking routines.
This is a woman who was brutally sexually assaulted by her team doctor, the notorious Larry Nassar, and as a result, suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. And yet was able to push through all that and perform. If anything, it has been her nearly unbroken streak of mental toughness that is the unusual thing, not the one time she had to back away because her head wasn’t in the right space.
Fourth, we should ask ourselves what we want from Olympic athletes. Sports are fun and I would argue necessary for inspiration and national solidarity. I want the U.S. to do well. I love when athletes push themselves to represent our great country. But Simone Biles and every other professional athlete don’t owe us anything. We forget that these athletes are human beings, not machines. They are not performance-bots. They have bodies and souls that sometimes break down.
Imagine yourself in your own line of work. Are there not times when you have to pause, step back, to take a break because you are not able to do the next task? I know I have. And in fact, I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that I should not see myself as a work-bot, that I have limited capacities, that I need to sometimes take a break because I’m a human and not God. So did Simone Biles. Let’s give her a break. Let’s treat her like we would want to be treated.
Photo Courtesy: ©Getty Images/Laurence Griffiths/Staff
Daniel Darling is the Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement. He previously served as the Senior VP for Communications at National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) and VP of Communications for the ERLC. You can find more from Dan at DanielDarling.com.