It was clear something was wrong before she even started towards the vault. With the cameras trained on Simone Biles, the greatest and most accomplished gymnast of all time, she was wide-eyed and breathing hard. The smiling confidence she typically wears before an event was gone. Anyone who has ever experienced anxiety might see themselves in Biles’s expression. But most who deal with it, myself included, don’t have to push feelings aside, sprint down a runway, launch ourselves into the air, and rotate nearly three full times while millions look on.
When Biles made the public announcement that she’d removed herself from the team and individual competitions at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics following her performance, the immediate backlash was at once disheartening and utterly unsurprising. Commentators and Olympics fans alike were quick to label the move a cop-out, accusing the decorated athlete (and the GOAT) of leaving her team in the lurch.
As if Biles trained every day for years for nothing, as if she planned to step back. During the months of Olympics lead-up, predominantly female athletes have been railroaded, derided, and dismissed over things as fixable as a uniform change and as complicated (and hypocritical) as a drug test. Biles would be labeled a quitter for daring to protect her own wellbeing, to say enough, and finally, erect a boundary between her very public work and her own peace of mind.
Simone Biles isn’t the only athlete to finally spark push back against our athlete industrial complex. Earlier this year, global tennis star Naomi Osaka received similarly cruel treatment for her respectful statement declaring she’d no longer be giving post-match interviews due to her anxiety. Likewise, Norway’s women’s beach handball team made headlines for refusing to play in their required uniform: skimpy bikini bottoms. The team was eventually fined for their decision to compete in spandex shorts, as the men's team does, instead.
Sometimes, the treatment of female athletes veers into utterly incomprehensible and potentially dangerous: Paralympian swimmer Becca Meyers, who is both deaf and blind, was forced to drop out of the Games when she was roundly denied a personal care assistant in Tokyo. The governing Olympic body told Meyers she would have to share a care assistant with 33 other competing swimmers, nine of whom also have a visual impairment.
Sha’Carri Richardson, on the other hand, experiences those expectations of perfection on and off the field. Her positive drug test for marijuana disqualified her from competing for a country in which many states have legalized said drug's recreational use, by the way. What's more, Richardson accepted responsibility and didn’t campaign to run in the Olympics relay—even though the event postdates her suspension. The USA Track & Field argues that her competing would have been unfair to her American teammates despite a clear and well-documented double standard for white male athletes.
Biles, Osaka, Meyers, the Norwegian team, and Richardson are all in the same boat to a certain extent. Notions of "just suck it up and compete" and intense scrutiny have punished these athletes for their imperfections. Maybe it's the societal result of too many inspirational sports films or shoe commercials where the hero player battles personal demons and a shattered ankle to win the big game—after being about 50 points down at the half, of course. Whatever the case, it's clear the narrative around athletic performance is now coming at the expense of athlete's mental and physical well-being.
If you take time to page through athlete profiles and sports coverage, you’ll start to notice a pattern in descriptions of female athletes. You’ll see seemingly complimentary terms like superhuman, untouchable, powerhouse. They’re not meant with any malice, but they contribute to the Nike-fiction of sports: just do it, at all costs and without too much lip.
Women athletes, particularly women of color, are under a microscope. They're expected to perform with machine-like precision and strength while keeping it prim and ladylike the second they leave the court (or mat, or field). Give insightful and friendly soundbites to sports press but not fashion magazines or social media accounts lest people think they (gasp) actually want to be celebrities. Push through the pain, physical and mental, but don’t ever speak about it.
But why should they have to follow these rules? Why does a globally-ranked tennis player have to give interviews? Why does a handball player have to compete while feeling exposed by her uniform? Why should an athlete with a prohibiting medical condition be forced to go it alone? And why is anyone judging a 24-year-old for making the tough decision to recuse herself from the competition?
Simone Biles won Worlds with a kidney stone; she dominated Nationals with broken toes in both feet. She's proven her grit, her toughness, a million times over—not that she should have ever had to, but it's worth mentioning. If Biles can push through all of those, shouldn't her removal be an indication that proves something is seriously wrong?
What's lost in the sports world of stats and endorsements and motivational quotes is that life isn't a Gatorade commercial. Simone's Biles medals can't do anything for her mental anguish; being on a box of Wheaties can't fix her pain. But time, space, and our compassion can certainly help. There's no world in which any Olympian wants to abruptly and publically exit a competition. By doing so very publically, Biles is a real athlete, a real role model. She is sucking it up; she is pushing through it—I'm sure she'd take the vault over Twitter's venom if she could. Biles, Osaka, Meyers, Richardson, and the Norweigan squad are taking one for the team. They're taking one for athletes everywhere.