After deciding to sit out yesterday’s women’s gymnastics team final at the Olympics, Simone Biles has, on one hand, been condemned as a lousy quitter, and, on the other, been hailed as a shining example of prioritizing one’s mental health above all else.
Neither camp is quite right.
If Biles deserves praise for what she did — and I believe she does — it’s not because she “prioritized herself” but primarily because her decision was actually quite selfless, even though she describes it as having been self-focused. Although she says she withdrew because of her own mental inability to cope with the pressure or to compete safely (which, as Dan McLaughlin notes, is more than enough reason to stand aside) it’s clear that she did so at least in part because she didn’t want to harm her team.
No Olympic gymnast slaves over their sport 24/7 for years just to arrive at the final competition and stand on the sidelines. No true athlete would ever wish for that or make that decision lightly. Biles’s critics talk about what she did as if she had casually shrugged and announced, “I just don’t feel like it, and I don’t actually care about this competition.” Nothing we know about Simone Biles, and nothing she’s said, indicates that she has this attitude toward the sport, herself as an athlete, or her team.
Had Biles stayed in the contest yesterday and continued to perform as far below her usual scores as she did on that first vault, she would’ve dragged down the team score much further than anything her teammates could’ve compensated for. Her choice not to compete might’ve dealt a blow to the overall score — but only if we assume that she would’ve gone on to perform as the incredible, flawless Simone Biles we’ve all come to expect. Based on what she’s told us, there’s little reason to think she was physically or mentally capable of performing that way yesterday. Nor is it fair to criticize her as if she should’ve been able to simply snap her fingers and carry on perfectly as if nothing had gone wrong, as if she could’ve done so if she’d just had the right attitude.
By standing aside, Biles chose not to risk her team’s performance just so she could save face and avoid personal embarrassment or to avoid the hate and blame she must’ve known were coming. It was a courageous and humble thing to do, as much as we might wish she could’ve performed at her usual 100 percent, wowed the world, and brought home another gold. The fact that she admitted her weakness was deeply humanizing, a powerful reminder that even the most glorious athletes aren’t invincible.
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