This has not been the Olympics that any of us expected, least of all for those of us expecting Team USA to continue its streak of dominance in women’s gymnastics. How could it not with Simone Biles, the four-time gold medalist and reigning world champion, leading the American squad?
I have nothing but empathy for her, a young woman who’s been told for years that nothing is more important than being the greatest.
But Biles only competed in one of the four events during Tuesday’s team finals. After a vault that saw her go flying forward on what’s normally her strongest apparatus, the top gymnast in the world appeared on the sidelines in her warmup gear. The initial reporting from Tokyo cited USA Gymnastics as saying she’d withdrawn due to a “medical issue.”
Later, after the Americans had taken home the silver medal, Biles clarified that it wasn’t a physical injury that had made her withdraw — it was her mental state. "Physically, I feel good. I'm in shape," Biles said on NBC's "TODAY" show. "Emotionally, it varies on the time and moment. Coming to the Olympics and being head star isn't an easy feat."
There have already been plenty of people willing to criticize her for this choice. But Biles is a daredevil in an already dangerous sport. She performs skills that the sport’s governing body refuses to score at their full possible value at least in part to discourage others from even trying them.
“They’re both too low and they even know it,” Biles told The New York Times in May about the starting scores the International Gymnastics Federation gives her beam dismount and the double pike vault. “But they don’t want the field to be too far apart. And that’s just something that’s on them. That’s not on me.”
This is a woman who is throwing herself through the air, defying gravity and making adjustments within the span of fractions of a second. The power Biles deploys in her floor routine is so intense that her main challenge is finding ways to disperse the excess kinetic energy without stepping too far out of bounds — or shattering a bone.
Trying to force some of the moves that she throws, demonstrating skills that the judges have already been made aware she was due to perform, could have been devastating. And that’s in her best events. A misstep on the 4-inch-wide balance beam or a fall from the uneven bars could be disastrous — or deadly.
Imagine trying to do any of the things that Biles does in the best mental state of your life — then try to picture what it would feel like when you’re off your game. The pressure to be the best was clearly drowning out Biles’ ability to focus on her routines. And trying to force it in those conditions could wind up causing the types of physical injuries that keep world-class athletes from ever competing again, a fact she acknowledged after withdrawing.
“Today it’s like, you know what, no, I don’t want to do something stupid and get hurt,” she said after exiting the finals on Tuesday, according to The New York Times.
No, when those are the stakes, it makes absolute sense that Biles would pull back from the competition. “At the end of the day, I have to do what was right for me,” she said. “It just sucks that it happened at the Olympic Games.” That’s exactly the right vibe, no matter what any of her haters may say.
It’s not clear yet whether she’s going to return to the mat during this Olympics. She has until Thursday, when the women’s individual events kick off, to decide if she’s in the right shape to defend her title as all-around women’s champion.
If she does, I’m ready to enjoy the show that Biles will almost certainly put on. But if she doesn’t, I have nothing but empathy for her, a young woman who’s been told for years that nothing is more important than being the greatest. Someone like that choosing her own safety over glory, after decades of reported abuse of countless gymnasts who came before her from the top of the sport? That’s a much-needed step in the right direction for USA Gymnastics.