Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast in history, withdrew from the team competition and the all-around competition at the Olympics 2021 in Tokyo this week. “I had to do what’s right for me and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” she told press.
Immediately far-right commentators, trolls, and generally creepy men lashed out at the 24-year-old gymnast. They called her a quitter, weak, and a coward. They accused her of abandoning her teammates. They even implied that she’s not a good American. It’s not worth singling out these critics—getting attention for raging at a strong Black woman is exactly what they want.
But there are probably nice, reasonable people in your life who are critical of Biles’s decision too. It’s not particularly compassionate, but it’s understandable—if you don’t rabidly follow Biles (can’t relate), you might look at this situation and just see a person breaking her commitment. Most of us were raised on stories of athletes being celebrated for putting their physical and mental health at risk to compete. We saw Kerri Strug as an 18-year-old U.S. gymnast win a gold medal on a broken foot, and we were told that was heroic. (Strugg never competed again—more on that below.)
This is exactly the unhealthy narrative Simone Biles is countering—she’s showing every current and future athlete that saving your own life is more important than getting a medal. She’s helping us unlearn a crazy, exploitative, and just plain unnecessary mentality. Let’s let her take a well-deserved break, and do some of that unlearning together.
Here are some ways to talk about Simone Biles’s historic week, whether you’re arguing with creeps, a misguided friend, or even your own inner skeptic:
They say: “She’s weak—she should have pushed through it.”
You say: Whoah! Obviously, her physical strength speaks for itself. Long before she set foot in Tokyo, she had already solidified her status as the greatest gymnast of all time. And I think you’re forgetting that she became the greatest gymnast of all time while holding national organizations accountable for the fact that former doctor Larry Nassar abused her and hundreds of other gymnasts. She’s shown strength beyond comprehension.
In fact, she pushed herself to go to the Tokyo Olympics to do something even harder than gymnastics. As the final Olympic gymnast who survived Nassar, she has said that she feels responsible for continuing to hold U.S. Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee accountable for what she and other gymnasts say was a failure to keep them safe. “I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side,” she said ahead of the Games. “But since I’m still here, and I have quite a social media presence and platform—they have to do something.”
We have no idea what it feels like to have the eyes of the world on you as you deal with the fallout of assault. But we know Biles isn’t weak.
They say: She’s a quitter
You say: I disagree—is every person who’s ever taken a sick day a quitter? Biles’s historic decision will influence untold numbers of future athletes—and women—who will learn that it is okay to ask for help or take a break. Anyway, were you more upset about Simone Biles dropping out of the Olympics or about Larry Nassar abusing hundreds of gymnasts?
They say: Well, she’s no longer the GOAT (greatest of all time).
You say: Simone Biles is the greatest of all time because she’s capable of executing the hardest moves ever performed in gymnastics. She already has four Olympic golds and 19 world championship titles. Having a mental health challenge does not change that.