When you strip away all the unnecessary, extraneous aspects of sports, the stuff that surrounds sports but isn’t actually sports — story lines, box scores, sportswriters, pregame shows, Stephen A. Smith — what you get is what actually matters: the pure, unadulterated physicality of the truly athletically blessed. The best athletes do things you didn’t think the human body was capable of. It can feel supernatural.
I’m not sure there’s an athlete today who has represented this pushing of the boundaries of human possibility more than the gymnast Simone Biles. She’s so incredible at what she does that you have to slow it down just for your mind to comprehend it:
To do that requires an otherworldly combination of athletic gifts and intense, unwavering dedication. To be able to do that once means having attempted and failed thousands of times before. And it takes an incredible toll, physically and mentally. It seems like a miracle, but any athlete can tell you: It absolutely isn’t. We see only the end result. Getting there is what hurts the most.
On Tuesday morning, Biles, competing in the women’s all-around championship with Team U.S.A., attempted her two and a half twists on the vault, and after just one and a half twists, she pulled up and landed awkwardly. (She had done the same thing during warm-ups.) With the competition just ramping up, she then exited entirely, to be replaced by her longtime friend Jordan Chiles (who was terrific). There was some initial confusion as to what had happened. The NBC broadcast, being called by announcers who were not in the gym, said Biles’s withdrawal was “not injury related” but a “mental issue.” The official statement from U.S.A. Gymnastics said she withdrew “because of a medical issue,” and her coach said, “Physically she is fine. But she is done for tonight.” One of the important ways the discussion of sports has improved over the past few years is that there’s a better understanding that the statements from U.S.A. Gymnastics and from her coach are not inherently contradictory. They go hand in hand.
Biles herself said it wasn’t anything physical in the press conference afterward.
“I felt like it would be better to take a back seat,” she explained. “I didn’t want to risk the team a medal because they worked way too hard for my screwups.”
Biles said she was shaking during the long wait between the team’s morning practice and the competition. “[I] never felt like this before … Once I came out here, I was like, No, the mental is not there. I had to let the girls do it.”
“It’s been really stressful this Olympic Games,” she said. “It’s been a long week, a long Olympic process, a long year. I think we’re a little too stressed out — we should be out here having fun, and that’s just not the case.”
The United States went on to finish behind the team from Russia, ending up with the silver medal, the first time the U.S. hasn’t won the gold since 2010. Biles’s withdrawal wasn’t the reason it fell short, or at least not the only one. But it will end up being all anyone remembers from the event despite the heroics of Chiles and her teammates. And it will all center around Biles’s mental health.
It’s important to remember just how much strain Biles has been under heading into these Games. In an episode of her Facebook Live show, Simone vs. Herself, Biles related how she had broken down in tears when telling her mother about the abuse she had suffered from Larry Nassar, the longtime U.S.A. Gymnastics coach who in 2018 was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison after more than 150 former athletes testified that he had sexually abused them. Biles has said one of the primary reasons she wanted to compete in this year’s Games was so that a survivor of Nassar’s abuse would be there, that U.S.A. Gymnastics, which had covered for Nassar for decades, would have to face what it was a part of. “I just feel like [with] everything that happened, I had to come back to the sport to be a voice, to have change happen,” Biles told People. “Because I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side.” It had clearly begun to wear on her both mentally and physically. Just before leaving for Tokyo, she said she was mostly just eager for the Games to be over:
The pressure was unfathomable. Biles had to be the public face of an organization, U.S.A. Gymnastics, that had failed hundreds of abused gymnasts and to be the face of public criticism of that organization. (Anyone attempting to compare her trouble today to Kerri Strug’s famous dismount from the vault in 1996 with an injured ankle should remember where coaches were carrying her when she landed: toward Larry Nassar.) Biles was also, of course, recovering from that abuse herself. And she had to do it on the grandest platform on the planet, competing against, and alongside, the best athletes her sport has ever produced, in an Olympics that is happening during a pandemic, an Olympics no one is exactly sure should have happened in the first place.
The wonder is not that Biles was unable to perform. The wonder is that she made it this far at all.
The Olympics aren’t necessarily over for Biles or her teammates. She has qualified for the individual all-around competition as well as the floor, vault, beam, and uneven bars. (That she is 24, years older than almost all of her teammates and competitors, makes this even more remarkable.) On Tuesday, she said she hoped she would be able to compete again in Tokyo, but the question of whether she’ll be ready to come back or can “meet the moment” misses the point of what Biles has been going through, and what she has been saying, all along.
The pressures of being an Olympian are all-encompassing in the first place, and the pressures of being Simone Biles have been more than any of the rest of us could bear. Perhaps the best thing we can do for Biles right now is to give her a break, leave her alone, and let her heal, in whatever form that may take. The Olympics, and sports in general, provide the illusion that because we are watching this as entertainment, the athletes somehow owe us their performances. They don’t. Biles’s brilliance isn’t a miracle: It’s the product of blood, sweat, spirit, soul, thousands of hours of pain and dedication — all of it. It is not magic. It is as human as it gets. In every way.