Simone Biles during the women's qualification for the Artistic Gymnastics final at the Tokyo Olympics (Photo by Ulrik Pedersen/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Too big to fail

It would have been better for Simone Biles if we’d just accepted her defeat

Is the greatest athlete of all time allowed to fail? Last week, five-time Olympic medallist and gymnastic force of nature Simone Biles shocked the sports community by announcing her withdrawal from the women’s all-around gymnastics final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The immediate reason given by USA Gymnastics was a medical problem, stating: 

Simone Biles has withdrawn from the team final competition due to a medical issue. She will be assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions.

Biles herself immediately contradicted this account. The reasons behind her withdrawal have been inconsistent; ranging from an injury, then denial of any physical issue, followed by a media frenzy regarding mental health and finally, an exploration of technical apprehensiveness. 

Due to the difficulties of their field, an unfocused gymnast could cause irreparable damage to their health. Biles latest explanation for her withdrawal is that she got “the twisties”, a mental block in which gymnasts lose their sense of spatial awareness. If this is the difficult choice she had to make, then it was an entirely sensible decision, which prioritised her safety over an Olympic medal, and is to be applauded.

It was almost automatically assumed that all women competing against Biles were training for defeat

However, it seems trouble was brewing before she set foot on the mat last week. Biles wrote on Instagram about the pressure she felt to wow everyone at Tokyo 2020. In a press conference following the surprise announcement to step back, she spoke of whether she felt she was having fun or not and the pressure of public expectations:

No injury, thankfully. I think we’re just a little bit too stressed out, but we should be out here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case. These Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself but I came in and I felt like I was still doing it for other people. It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.

This desire to have fun at the Olympic Games was framed as “putting mental health first.” While we all strive to enjoy the work we do, it should not be scandalous to recognise that the Olympic Games represent a global competition among nations, not a personal validation scheme — even for an athlete of Biles’ stature.

Yet the unhinged expectations placed upon the shoulders of this 24-year-old rationalise why it is possible that she shapeshifted an underwhelming performance into a triumph for mental health.

Simone Biles had a difficult childhood, followed by sexual abuse while in the care of USA Gymnastic, who to this day has shown a “lack of accountability” for allowing girls like her to be predated upon by adult men. Her becoming one of the greatest athletes in history is remarkable and her courageous advocacy against abuse is worthy of admiration. That should not preclude her from being allowed to have a bad day on the mat at a high-stakes event.

Expectation in the lead up to her Tokyo events was rabid, veering into the obsessive. She wasn’t just good; she had to be unconquerable. People were not expecting a gymnastic performance, they wanted gravity-defying miracles. “The 24-year-old had been expected to launch an all-out assault on the record books in Japan,” wrote The Guardian.

While much of the expectation was external, Biles herself contributed to a professional brand that saw her hailed not only as the phenomenal athlete she is, but as “the greatest of all time,” embracing her accolades as the GOAT by including references to it on her leotards. In honour of her, Twitter created a Simone Biles goat emoji (since removed) in the lead up to her highly anticipated Olympics performance.

Yet when the moment of truth came, in uncharacteristic fashion she underperformed, reaching the lowest scores of her Olympic career. Minutes later, she announced she was withdrawing from the games. Is the GOAT allowed to fail, if only once in a while? 

Much of the commentary regarding Simone Biles’ withdrawal assumed that even if she did not compete, she won by default by virtue of existing. This is a disservice to any athlete, particularly a woman whose most impressive achievements might still lay ahead of her. The drive to transform professional athletes into influencers risks turning sports into a personal validation contest rather than a competition based on performance. 

A forgotten angle in this conversation is the immense pressure the women competing against Biles must feel when going head-to-head against such a force of nature. When the hype around an athlete, no doubt exaggerated by the United States renowned “American exceptionalism” myth, brands them as peerless in their field, it generates a double standard in which some talented and impressive women have to prove their worth and work hard for a medal while another automatically wins regardless of how she performs. It was almost automatically assumed that all women competing against Simone Biles were training for defeat as they wouldn’t stand a chance against her.

Nobody wants to hear this, but failure is oftentimes necessary for personal growth

What would the narrative be if Simone Biles had competed in all events and won bronze instead of gold? Based on the inconsistent accounts of her withdrawal, it is possible that she anticipated this was a possibility.

A refreshing approach would see an undoubtedly extraordinary woman perform badly at her craft and rise up again, as all athletes do over their careers.

Is the desire to celebrate a woman with a remarkable life story and astonishing athletic capabilities boxing her into a one-dimensional narrative in which everybody is allowed to fail but her?

The drive to celebrate Biles withdrawal from the Olympics as a victory for mental health prevents society from critically analysing the burdens of perfectionism and the strain demands for greatness placed on high-achieving women.

If she had won gold medals in the Tokyo 2020 games, she would be lauded as the undefeated greatest. Yet according to some, when she did not meet her own expectations, she still won by generating a debate about mental health in sport. Where is the room for improvement?

Nobody wants to hear this, but failure is oftentimes necessary for personal growth. Defeat, whether in our professional lives or personal relationships, is character building and shapes us far more than any victory ever could. Champions are humanised by a process of stumbling and rising up against the odds to meet their destiny.

By removing the possibility of occasional defeat from the options available to Simone Biles, we elevate her into an inhumane pedestal that must feel like a prison to any 24-year-old. Simultaneously, we teach impressionable generations that they can wish away failure if only they call it by another name. There’s no victory in that.

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