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FOR ALL HER GREATNESS, THE TRUTH IS UNAVOIDABLE: BILES QUIT
Too many Olympic athletes have overcome mental and physical challenges to give a pass to Biles, who also withdrew from the all-around event and, thus, lost a chance to preserve her G.O.A.T. legacy
It’s her life, not ours. We don’t know the depths of her pain, the intensity of her torment. Simone Biles may ooze of empowerment and wear a leotard with a rhinestone-detailed goat, reminding us that she’s the Greatest Of All Time in her sport, but it wasn’t long ago when she pondered suicide.
The evil team doctor who’d molested her and hundreds of other female gymnasts, Larry Nassar, was in the judicial process of being sent to prison. Lost one day, Biles tweeted to millions of social-media followers about her internal demons. “Most of you know me as a happy, giggly, energetic girl,” she wrote. “But lately … I’ve felt a bit broken and the more I try to shut off the voice in my head, the louder it screams.” Later, she would tell Vogue magazine that ‘‘it was the closest thing to death without harming myself.’’
Her despair returned at the most inopportune time, in what was to be her coronation at the Tokyo Olympics. But unlike 2018, Biles didn’t ascend from her depression Tuesday night and conquer life as an American treasure and Black icon. This time, as the world watched, she paused in mid-competition in the women’s team final … and walked away. The ‘‘demons,’’ as she called them, had thrown her off the vault, out of the event and, quite possibly, from a Summer Games set up to secure her place in sports history.
“There’s more to life than just gymnastics,’’ said Biles, sounding like she wanted to be anywhere but Japan. “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.’ ‘’
Suddenly, as shock settled over the venue, the empathy America wanted to have for her dissolved into a difficult discussion about mental health and what is expected from world-class athletes. Do we feel sorry for Biles? Of course, we do. But haven’t so many sports legends defined themselves by overcoming debilitating challenges — including suicidal thoughts — and winning? Isn’t survival part of the legacy equation when surrender never is? In a bigger view, don’t all human beings face emotional obstacles — demons and pressures and heavy stuff? Most people can’t just stop, drop everything and go home in the biggest moments of a chosen career. Has the sporting culture become more enlightened in the 21st century, realizing the mind must be healthy for the body to follow? Or are Gen Zers simply more entitled and quicker to bail from adversity than generations past? And what kind of statement are they sending to future generations about traditional values such as toughness, perseverance, determination and soldiering on?
There is no avoiding the cold truth. Simone Biles quit, just as Naomi Osaka quit earlier this year, and allowed a team of Russian gymnasts who shouldn’t be anywhere near Tokyo — remember the state-masterminded doping scandal? — to end the Team USA dynasty. If you think that’s harsh, consider the massive amounts of money and exposure Biles has accepted for her G.O.A.T. distinction and accompanying burden. Few feel sorry for the high-school teacher or plumber who face depression bouts. So if we’re going to throw huge hugs around Simone, every person in a dark place on this planet deserves similar compassion, including homeless people who ache and shiver while sleeping in alleys without food in their bellies. Biles could have preserved her legacy by winning Thursday’s all-around final and her fifth career gold medal, but she withdrew from that event, too, to focus on her “mental health.’’ Her decision mostly is being applauded, but we should be thinking instead about Olympic athletes who’ve battled hardship — mental suffering, physical anguish — to win glory.
“I know that in this Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself,” said Biles, fighting tears after her exit. “I came here, and I felt like I was still doing it for other people. So that just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.
“We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day, we’re human too. So we have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do. With the year that it’s been, I’m really not surprised how it played out. I had to do what's right for me and not jeopardize my health and well-being. So that's why I decided to kind of take a step back.’’
The first sign that Biles wasn’t right came Monday, after she stumbled in team qualifying and the U.S. fell to second place. “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times,’’ she wrote on Instagram. “It wasn't an easy day or my best but I got through it. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn't affect me but damn sometimes it's hard hahaha! The Olympics is no joke!" Her post suggested her heart wasn’t in these Games, even if she was the undeniable star of the entire show and expected to win five gold. She doesn’t seem to care right now about the all-around event and finals in additional disciplines, saying, ``It is what it is. Whatever happens, happens.’’
Not to lecture, but these might be the most important hours of Simone Biles’ life. She has time to conquer the damned demons again, win individual events next week and weave a triumphant story about sport and life in complicated times. Or, she can stay tethered to her phone and let social media sabotage the remaining days and nights. “There were a couple of days when everybody tweets you and you feel the weight of the world," she said. “We're not just athletes, we're people at the end of the day, and sometimes you just have to step back. I didn't want to go out and do something stupid and get hurt. I feel like a lot of athletes speaking up has really helped."
Has it? Osaka took a hiatus from a thriving tennis career because she didn’t like answering questions at news conferences. Yet, peculiarly, her anxiety wasn’t an issue when she was planning magazine cover shoots, Barbie dolls and self-documentaries. She was happy to answer questions last week in her native Japan, where she reigned as a national hero when she lit the Olympic cauldron. Days later, she was bounced from the tennis competition, ending thoughts that these would be the Naomi Games and rekindling doubts about her focus and direction. ‘‘The scale of everything is a bit hard because of the break that I took,’’ she said after losing to the Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova, ranked 42nd in the world. What Osaka has done, at age 23, is plant seeds in the minds of other young, dominant athletes — such as Biles, who is one year older.
It’s OK to lose, even admirable, if you don’t feel good.
You wonder if the same mentality will be adopted by college athletes who are being showered with endorsement money, some in seven figures, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling that turned programs into pro franchises and led to a chaotic round of football conference realignment and transfer portal frenzy. Will the star quarterback, driving a Maserati and blowing off classes while awaiting the NFL draft, choose to take a mental health day before a big game?
If she never competes again, Simone Biles will be remembered magnificently as the most accomplished of gymnasts, one who inspired girls of color with her revolutionary magic. She is a courageous survivor of abuse, years of wear and tear in a demanding sport and a childhood in which she lived in foster care while her biological mother battled addiction before her maternal grandfather adopted her. She urged America to vote last November and railed against social injustice and police brutality. Of utmost importance, she told USA Gymnastics to go to hell after Larry Nassar.
But imprisoned as we are by the grand Olympic dream, we also expected her to complete the fairy tale in Tokyo. Instead, she fled the heat.
It’s her life, not ours. But it’s also her legacy, and it has taken a blow. If only she had stared down the demons, pointed to the rhinestone goat and said Thursday night, ‘‘I can do this. I’m Simone Biles.’’ She couldn’t. It was a decision other G.O.A.T.s would not have made.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.