There’s a little joke we used to tell at the Olympics: Nobody is more of an expert on anything than a sportswriter watching an Olympic sport for the second time. The first time a sportswriter would watch the highest level of a sport like fencing or diving or the biathlon or badminton, he or she (but, let’s be honest, mostly he) might try to learn the rules, try to figure out the rhythms, try to understand what’s going on.
The second time, however, that same sportswriter will say things out loud like, “Oh, that’s just a terrible dive, awful, what a choke,” or “that’s one of the worst clean and jerk efforts I’ve ever seen” or “Wow, what sloppy butterfly form.”
It really is quite funny. I remember at the Winter Olympics some years ago — you might remember this too — when Lindsey Jacobellis was winning the Snowboard Cross and near the end, she tried some sort of mid-air trick and she somehow fell and ended up losing the gold medal and settling for silver. And suddenly sportswriters who had never seen a Snowboard Cross in their lives and normally wouldn’t have watched the event if it had been happening IN THEIR BACKYARDS were mortified, indignant, offended beyond belief. Didn’t she know this was the Olympics? Doesn’t she understand the gravity of this moment?
How dare she TRY TO HAVE FUN WHEN SHE WAS FLYING HIGH IN THE AIR ON A SNOWBOARD!
“Silver is pretty good,” she said meekly, but this line of reasoning did not play especially well among those who had decided that nothing on earth is more important than Snowboard Cross gold, and the Olympics are bloodless war and that winning is the only thing that matters, even in events where people ride snowboards over mounds of snow.
I was reminded of this Tuesday when the incredible Simone Biles pulled out of the Olympics team gymnastics final. Biles is the best gymnast in the history of the world, and has been pretty much since she was 16 years old. Over the last eight years, she has led the United States to four team world championships and an Olympic Gold medal, and she has won a truckload of individual gold medals along the way.
But she didn’t feel right at these Olympics. The last year and a half has been hard on everybody in the world, and these particular Olympics are a mess with no fans in the stands, no family to support the athletes, and COVID-19 positives popping up every other hour — it’s not especially easy to understand why they’re even happening.
And in the prelims, Biles felt overwhelmed. She has been the best in the world for so long that it seemed easy. But it is anything but easy. As she wrote in an Instagram post: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like the pressure doesn’t affect me, but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The Olympics is no joke!”
The day of the finals was worse, much worse. She would later say that she couldn’t sleep leading up to the event. She was shaking. When she tried her first vault, she says that she got lost in the air … she simply could not concentrate the way she needed. Gymnasts have to overcome intense mental blocks to do the extraordinary and dangerous things they attempt. Simone Biles simply could not break through. She worried about getting hurt. She worried about hurting her team’s chances at a medal. And she withdrew from the event and rooted for her teammates, who went out and won the silver. She has since withdrawn from the individual event as well.
“I’m still struggling with some things,” she said afterward. “It just sucks when you are fighting with your own head.”
The response to all this has been predictable. Most people, I think, have stood behind Biles, applauded her greatness, wished her well as she finds her way. For even casual gymnastics fans, the joy that Biles had brought to us through the years is utterly overwhelming. Seeing her perform live in Rio and on television numerous other times has made my life significantly better. Having her participate in our First Woman Voter campaign last year was incredible too. I know countless people love her from afar.
And then … there was the infuriating backlash from those people who attacked Biles for, quote, “letting down her country.” This backlash seemed, for the most part, to be generated by a certain type of person — generally male, generally older, generally outspokenly conservative, generally, from what I can tell, from people who didn’t give one damn about gymnastics or Biles until they saw an opportunity they could seize upon to vomit their hot takes.
And suddenly they were “worried” about her letting her teammates down, letting her country down, as if the U.S. gymnastics team winning Olympic gold was something they had given 30 seconds of thought to before Tuesday, as if they could possibly understand what it takes to be a world-class gymnast, as if they could even remotely grasp what Simone Biles has had to do to reach such great heights. They have the gall to lecture Simone Biles — one of the greatest Olympic athletes ever — about what the Olympics mean. It would be funny if it weren’t so awful.
There’s a funny scene in “Schmigadoon!” where Keegan-Michael Key’s character is asking women to cross a bridge with him and one of them says, “I didn’t know about this bridge until 10 seconds ago and now it’s the most important thing in my life.” That’s what I imagine happened to these people: They were barely aware that America was trying to win gymnastics gold again and suddenly that gold was the most important thing in their entire lives.
Simone Biles went to Tokyo to compete, to win, just like she did in Rio, just like she did at all those world championships, just like she did at countless gymnastics events that only her truest fans followed. She endured so much, overcame sexual abuse, carried the banner of her sport, lived every day with the expectations. Then, one year late, she was sent to Tokyo without her family, without fans in the stands, to compete at an Olympics that doesn’t feel at all like an Olympics.
And she just couldn’t do it. She tried. She couldn’t. If she had to pull out with a torn hamstring, nobody would have said anything. If she had to pull out with a broken rib, nobody would have said anything. But she had to pull out for reasons that run deeper, for an injury that is not so easily diagnosed, for a wound that is not so vividly seen, for demons that haunt her and so many of the world’s greatest athletes.
“I’m SO proud of these girls right here,” she wrote on an Instagram photo of her and teammates holding up their silver medals. “You girls are incredibly brave & talented! I’ll forever be inspired by your determination to not give up and to fight through adversity! They stepped up when I couldn’t. Thanks for being there for me and having my back!”
Sure seems like the Olympic spirit to me.