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Simone Biles: was she courageous to quit?

US gymnast became the talk of Tokyo for not performing

Simone Biles was expected to be the talk of the Olympics, owing to her “jaw-dropping performances” in the run-up to the Games, said Jemele Hill in The Atlantic. Instead, the US gymnast became the talk of the event for not performing. Last week Biles, who has four Olympic golds to her name, and who is often referred to as the GOAT – Greatest of All Time – sensationally withdrew from the team events, after botching a vault in the opening rotation. Commentators were stunned. “She looked lost in the air,” said one. Biles later explained that the pressure had got to her, and that she couldn’t carry on (though this week, she took bronze in the finals on the beam). “I have to focus on my mental health,” she said. The news prompted an outpouring of support, but also complaints that the 24-year-old gymnast had “bottled it”. 

That may sound harsh, but isn’t it what happened, asked Hannah Gal on UnHerd. Athletes are supposed to push themselves to the limit; that is why we watch the Olympics, to marvel at the sight of people reaching beyond what seems possible. By giving in to pressure, Biles let down her team and cast a “shadow over the entire premise” of the Games. Her actions were self-centred, and showed a lack of resilience that is typical of her generation. Yet instead of lamenting her weakness, politicians and others have queued up to congratulate her for her supposed “courage” in prioritising her mental health. 

It wasn’t only about her mental health, said Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian. Biles has confirmed that she’d been suffering from the “twisties” – a phenomenon in which gymnasts lose spatial awareness mid-move, and which can lead to serious injury. Given all Biles has been through, it was not very surprising that she succumbed. Elite athletes endure gruelling regimes (complaints of bullying are rife in gymnastics). Female athletes may also have to contend with being objectified (consider the bizarre insistence on beach volleyball players wearing skimpy bikini bottoms), and even sexually exploited: Biles was one of the scores of young gymnasts who were molested by the US squad’s doctor, Larry Nassar. She has suffered from severe depression, and has endured vile racist abuse, all while under the intense pressure of being the GOAT. Countless young bodies and minds have been broken in pursuit of sporting excellence, said Rupert Hawksley in The Independent. Athletes will never stop pushing for gold. But if some have the courage to walk away, rather than sacrifice themselves on the altar of Olympic glory, we should salute them.

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