Nonetheless, I make an exception for Simone Biles and her incredible run as the queen of world gymnastics. In my lifetime, no gymnast has stayed at the top of the sport for so long. As the deferred 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics got underway, the only events that piqued my interest were the ones involving Biles.
It was therefore crushing to learn Tuesday morning that after a shaky vault, Biles decided to withdraw from the team competition. She stayed on the floor to cheer on the rest of Team USA, which won a silver medal. Biles explained to reporters, “You have to be there 100 percent. If not, you get hurt. Today has been really stressful. I was shaking. I couldn’t nap. I have never felt like this going into a competition, and I tried to go out and have fun. But once I came out, I was like, ‘No. My mental is not there.’ ”
ESPN’s Alyssa Roenigk wrote that, “the fact that Biles chose to place her mental and physical health above all — during the Olympics — and reveal her struggles to the world reminds gymnastics fans that if there is a cultural shift taking place within the sport, the athletes are leading it.”
This is true, and some folks think this is a sign of the decline and fall of Western civilization. Take, for example, Clay Travis:
My general read: athletes, and all young people, spend way too much time on social media and it is often very bad for mental health. The more time you spend on social media, the more mentally unhealthy you often are. This is a larger societal problem reflected in athletics. Instead of allowing coaches, teammates, your family and friends to primarily impact your mental health and state of well being, many now allow anonymous people on social media to define & pressure them. It’s toxic.
No doubt, social media can be toxic, but my read on the situation is somewhat different.
The comparison that Travis raises unintentionally highlights those differences. The reason that Kerri Strug did what she did in 1996 was because her coaches, Bela and Martha Karolyi, harangued her into doing it. So, at first glance, Travis seems to be correct that athletes might perform better if they let their coaches have the primary effect on their state of well-being.
I can’t count the number of times I watched other gymnasts push through unreasonable and dangerous pain just so they wouldn’t have to admit to the Karolyis they were hurting in the gym. It happened to others time and time again and, for me, it ultimately led to my body breaking down right before the biggest competition of my life, the 1996 Olympic Games, with a stress fracture in my right tibia. The Karolyis knew when I was injured — it was obvious to everyone in the gym — but they also knew I didn’t dare complain about my pain. If I had ever started to talk about my pain or injury, they would immediately cut me off, dismissing it or making comments or gestures that I was becoming weak, faking, or exaggerating injury out of laziness.
This seems extremely unhealthy, the kind of behavior that leaves a mark. And yet the Karolyis are not the absolute worst that USA Gymnastics has to offer. That would be Larry Nassar, the team doctor for well over two decades, who faced accusations from more than 250 gymnasts of sexual abuse.
I suppose that for someone like Travis, this abuse of authority just toughens the athletes up for future competitions. For way too long, young women were trained in exactly the way that Travis wanted. That produced Olympic gold medals and a culture of silence that led to a lot of psychological and physical abuse.
Moceanu told ESPN that as she began to realize the extent of the abuse she endured under Karolyi, Bela took her aside at Strug’s wedding to say, “Try to remember the good times. Try to remember the good times.” That is what Travis wants to do. But remembering the achievement becomes less fun once one realizes the potential for coaches, teammates, and even family and friends to abuse an athlete’s trust.
Simone Biles is already the G.O.A.T. in her sport. No one should doubt her ability or her competitive drive, and those who persist in doing so only reveal their own ignorance about the sport.
If Biles was unable to concentrate while performing but tried to continue, that would have been a recipe for further injury and unnecessary pain. As ESPN’s Roenigk notes about Tuesday’s events, “Biles responded by doing something gymnasts have been calling upon their sport to do for them for years: place athlete health and well-being ahead of gold medals.”
Amen. Here endeth Clay Travis’s facile debate.