by Miroslav Imbrisevic
Watching the Tokyo Olympics made me think about what we want from our sporting heroines (and heroes). What can we expect from them, and can we make demands on them?
Texas Deputy Attorney General Aaron Reitz called the Olympic champion Simone Biles a “national embarrassment” after she withdrew from competing for mental health reasons. Reitz attached a video of gymnast Kerri Strug from the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta to his tweet. There, Strug performed her final vault with an injured ankle. This act of self-sacrifice gave the US team gold. Reitz tweeted: “Contrast this with our selfish, childish national embarrassment, Simone Biles.”
Reitz quickly apologized, but many in the right-wing media agreed with him. Amber Athey wrote: “Simone Biles is a quitter,” and she also called her “selfish.” Athey complained that as a result of Biles’ actions the US came second to Russia. Britain’s own Piers Morgan tweeted: “Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport? What a joke. Just admit you did badly, made mistakes, and will strive to do better next time. Kids need strong role models not this nonsense.”
Reitz, being an Attorney General, serves the people. He seems to think that athletes do the same. But are athletes little soldiers without weapons, serving their country to make sure that their nation comes out on top? Is sport “war minus the shooting” as George Orwell described it in 1945?
Both Reitz and Athey exhibit a distorted understanding of patriotism. In times of war, many soldiers willingly sacrifice themselves because they love their country. And sometimes they are sacrificed by the political elite in pointless wars. But in Tokyo we are not at war. Let’s keep in mind that prior to and during the ancient Olympics, all warlike action had to stop. Athletes compete against each other, and in individual events often against their own compatriots. The sensible athlete wants to beat his or her competitor, and not a particular country.
People like Reitz and Athey have a parasitic relationship to sporting success. They thrive on the achievement of “their” team and feel as if they had a hand in that achievement. But all they did was cheer, and they share the same passport. They are under the false impression that the glory of Olympians like Biles will rub off on them.
Is Simone Biles a quitter? The idea that you have to play through pain and injury (e.g., concussion in American Football) is based on a male ethos (war again?). Men are not allowed to show vulnerability. And it is instructive that recently, female athletes (Naomi Osaka) choose to prioritise their mental health and well-being over such an ethos.
Male sporting heroes rarely admit to struggling with the pressures of competing. An exception seems to be the sport of cricket. As I write, the English cricketer Ben Stokes announced that he would take an indefinite break from cricket to “prioritize mental wellbeing.”
Self-described “patriots” like Reitz think that Biles let their country down; that she is selfish. But they ignore the immense pressure the public puts on sporting greats. After all, our athletes are mortals, not gods. Biles said: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.” This is where the mental health issues come into play. It isn’t easy to cope with the constant pressure to succeed. The swimmer and four-time Olympian Michael Phelps suffered from depression during his career. When he heard about Simone Biles’ reasons for withdrawing, he said: “It broke my heart.”
Furthermore, in sports where there is the danger of serious injury (e.g., sports with aerial elements like BMX), your mental fitness is paramount. Biles mentioned “the twisties”: a mental block which makes you lose your spatial awareness when mid-air. It is actually selfish of Biles’ critics to demand that she continue to perform, even though she is in danger of serious injury. There is no need to sacrifice her welfare so that Reitz & Co. can bathe in her glory. And let’s not forget, she has not enlisted in the military.
Lastly, these faux patriots seem to have forgotten about the sexual abuse of underage gymnasts who were in the care of Larry Nassar, the disgraced Team USA physician. They were badly let down by USA Gymnastics. Biles decided to come back for another Olympics, at the age of 24, to hold people to account: “If there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side.” Speaking out about these issues and, at the same time, continuing to compete takes courage, but inevitably it will have taken its toll on the mental well-being of Biles.
So no, Simone Biles is not a quitter. She is a sporting heroine for facing up to her vulnerabilities and for speaking up for the survivors of sexual abuse. Athletes are not little soldiers serving their country. They have a right to put their own welfare over the thirst for vicarious glory by people like Reitz & Co.