The Tokyo Olympics will be remembered, like all other games, for outstanding performances by a multitude of athletes. Many records will be broken, and some athletes will really outshine the rest. Other stories will be mundane and will remain solely in a records book, like, for example, the Gold Medals obtained by Alexander Zverev and Belinda Bencic, non-controversial, non- unbelievable and tremendously memorable to only them and their close ones.
But the story of Simone Biles will be the talk of these games, at least for a little longer.
To recap: Biles, the clear favorite in ALL gymnastic events she enters, retired from the finals of the teams’ event, in which the USA was a favorite with her in the lineup. No “physical” injury was called upon for the retirement, but rather “mental health” issues. By the end of the games, she had retired from almost all events but secured a bronze medal in the beam competition, and the world was introduced to the gymnastic argot of the “twisties”, jargon for a condition that affects such athletes in which they lose control of their bodies or, in a definition given by Biles, “you can’t tell up from down”.
The responses were swift and categorical. Biles was cornered in two extreme positions: for one camp, she had “quit”, she had chickened out both on her team and her country. On the other, she had shown extreme bravery, showing the world that the pressure that athletes face is dangerous and, if athletes decide that they do not have to continue, their rights have to be respected. For example, comedian Bill Maher called those that criticized Biles “the lowest and the vilest”, an interesting position as Maher usually calls for moderation in labeling others and flatly aimed at British commentator Pierce Morgan, entrenched in the “Biles quit” camp.
But a third option, that Biles was neither a hero nor a quitter, was seldom discussed. And some context about Biles is needed.
First: Biles IS a sports hero. She is the most decorated gymnast in history, and has won big and frequently. She is, most likely, an inspiration to many people and certainly to young gymnasts joining the sport. Outside of the sport she lives a decent life and, unfortunately, was involved in the horrendous case of sexual abuse that the USA gymnastics community went through, but she handled that with grace and bravery. To decry her previous achievements for ONE moment in her history is shortsighted at best, harsh at worst.
But, second, she did remove herself from competition. At another pressure moment in her life, this time she could not muster what was needed. The fact that there were no physical injuries is what made the decision unprecedented as, if there had been such an injury, the entire situation would have been simple news (“Biles retires due to injury”) but it would have not become a “story”. And it is easy to see that her stature in the sport worked against her because, had any other gymnast done the same, the news would have been brief and relegated to page 14 of a newspaper (if newspapers still existed). But “with great powers come great responsibilities” and as the de-facto leader of the team, she was expected to perform and help the team win gold (which they lost to the Russians). Usually expected to win two or three medals, mostly gold, her retirement also meant that team USA would lose that loot, in the always competitive department of National Number of Medals.
A quick internet search (or sage explanations from friends that know more about the sport) will tell you that gymnastics is a dangerous competition. But one really does not need to find much literature to understand that; it would be difficult not to see that a missed turn, a wrong flip or any mistake in this discipline can lead to extreme physical injuries. Yet, the concept of the “twisties” is suspect. It claims that gymnasts (and only gymnasts) lose “control of their bodies”, something at which they excel and which is the core of their experience. In reality, it sounds a bit, if one is excused, like fear, a moment in which you realize how dangerous what you are doing really is and your body freezes in response; the same move you have practiced over and over now becomes a different experience because a realization of the risk is now there. Which would be a great admission because being afraid IS normal, and it is something that everybody in the world, be it a professional athlete or a common person, should understand is part of our human existence. Coming up with a fancy name helps little if the entire brave message to be delivered is that being afraid is acceptable, being afraid does not belittle you or makes you a worse person.
But still, that is not bravery; that is honesty. Part of the definition of bravery is that you conquer your fears in order to achieve something, not that you are fearless, which in a discipline like gymnastics would not mean bravery per se, it most likely would mean lunacy. Bravery, to the common person, is that quality that makes a firefighter run into a burning building to save somebody, that allows an ER surgeon to keep her calm when seconds are of the essence and the patient has minutes to live, that makes a police officer rush towards the gun shots, not to run away. Again, considering only two possible extremes as the places where truth resides is of no use to anybody and calling a retirement the epitome of bravery is not an example that many cultures would like to implant. If retirement is called brave, then what label is there to be applied to those that do not retire, those that, for example, are running the 1,500 mts and can see, entering the final lap, that there is no way they can win? Sure, finishing last in a race does not carry the same consequence as landing on your head after losing control of your body, but there is a modest degree of bravery and honor in giving your best in that last lap.
A further complication is that Biles was part of a team. Skipping a couple of steps, let’s propose this scenario: assume that in three years, Biles is still competing and has the numbers and credentials to make the USA team. Are you going to deny that the team’s coach may have reservations about her inclusion? Could there be a relapse to this condition, when the pressure once again mounts? That, at a minimum, there will be a conversation about her mental state? That would be naïve as a team cannot count on participants that may bring in uncertainty in their participation, that may at the last minute be unable to perform. Cultural differences will come into consideration and in some of them, this action will be clearly stated to be unacceptable; you can bet your last Yuan, Yen or Ruble that the conversation already took place, and it was rather one-sided. Responsibility and commitment to a team is something that everybody can understand, and something of which we saw an example when Novak Djokovic claimed an injury in his loss for the bronze medal and withdrew from a Mixed Doubles match for the bronze, leaving his partner alone to ponder if she could have won an Olympic medal, of any kind.
Bravery is a precious human commodity and the Olympics have given us many such displays: Shun Fujimoto, competing in the team event in Montreal ’76 with a severely injured knee and sticking a landing from the rings to help his team win gold, a landing that led to a ruptured ACL. Gabriela Andersen-Schiess in Los Angeles ‘84, cramping terribly as she entered the L.A. Coliseum barely able to walk but adamant to finish the marathon, for which she earned the 37th place. But one little known display, to me, stands out. In 2011, Venezuelan marathon runner Maickel Melamed ran the New York Marathon. Roughly around midnight, he crossed the finish line with a time of 15 hours, 22 minutes, where he was greeted by all the other Venezuelans that had run the race. So, what was so special about that? Why would you celebrate a man that finished a marathon in 15 hours? Because Melamed has a birth condition, caused by oxygen deprivation when the umbilical cord got wrapped around his neck at birth, and he runs marathons while severely disabled. It was a moment of simple bravery, by a common man.
Let’s not foster a cult for retirement. A healthy middle certainly can be found. Let’s accept it, as a normal part of the human condition. But let’s reserve the label of bravery for those that go above and beyond, those that say “I am not done yet”.