Opt Out or Dropout? Simone Biles and the Pressure to Perform
On this episode of democracy-ish, Danielle and Toure are on polar ends of a debate about star gymnast Simone Biles. Is she the embodiment of courage, or a quitter?
Simone Biles, widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, withdrew from competition at the Tokyo 2020 Games, citing the need to focus on her mental health.
Biles received an outpouring of support from former Olympians and legions of fans, including celebrities like Michelle Obama. Danielle praises Biles’ decision to put herself first despite unimaginable pressure to perform.
But Toure says there are plenty of folks who are critical of Biles (and he’s one of them). He thinks she “choked,” let down her team –– and herself. What’s more, he argues that those who voice their criticism are met with reproach.
“I have something burning in my soul,” says Toure. “I can’t lie … Simone Biles, the number one gymnast of all time –– the Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams of gymnastics –– quit on the team and herself on the biggest stage.”
Biles’ withdrawal from the individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Games to focus on her mental well-being was the chalk-dustup heard around the world. Her decision came a day after she removed herself from the team final after one rotation –– a disappointing performance on vault.
Toure is disappointed, to say the least. He thinks life, and sports, gives us difficult moments that “sometimes we have to power through.”
Since Biles’ announcement, there has been an “overwhelming rush to be super supportive” of her, although Toure is confident there are plenty of folks who are critical of her decision.
“We are generally afraid to say it because we’ll be attacked,” he says.
Prior to this week, Biles (the defending all-around Olympics champion since 2013) was the odds-on favorite to win gold in Tokyo again. As the veteran Olympian on the team, she was expected to lead them to the podium as well.
Since this episode was recorded, her teammate, 18-year-old Sunisa Lee, a first-generation Hmong American, won the gold medal in the all-around final. In the team competition, Team USA won silver.
For Toure, Biles’ exit diminished “all the coaches and others who paid, and worked, and sweated, and gave her attention and space to become the greatest gymnast of all time … I don't see it as courageous,” he says.
“Are you finished?” asks Danielle.
“I'm not, but you can jump in,” he says.
“Oh, okay,” she replies. “First of all, I am so taken aback and utterly disgusted with everything you just said. But honestly, it doesn't take much to disgust me these days.”
That’s how it starts. Buckle up, everyone.
Episode Highlights –– Simone Blues
Who does Simone Biles ‘owe’ (if anyone)?
When Toure heard about Biles’ withdrawal, he immediately thought: “What if LeBron got to game six of the NBA Finals? Or Tiger Woods, on the 17th hole at the Masters? … and said, This is too much pressure. I can't deal with this anymore.”
So he feels torn about the outpouring of support for her decision. He doesn’t understand why she’s saying she’s prioritizing her mental health, “when this is her life.”
One of the rallying cries from staunch supporters is that Biles doesn’t owe us anything.
“She absolutely does not owe the fans anything,” says Toure. “But does she not owe her teammates and herself, after years of working towards this moment?”
That’s a hard no for Danielle.
“I dare anyone to have shouldered not one, but two Olympic teams, knowing what we know,” she says, referring to the sexual abuse Biles suffered at the hands of Larry Nassar, the Team USA sports medicine physician who was sentenced to life in prison in 2017 after pleading guilty to child pornography and sexual assault of minors. (Nassar is accused of molesting hundreds of teenage girls under the guise of medical treatment.)
And everyone –– from the coaching staff to the USA Gymnastics association –– “fucking failed every single one of these young women,” Danielle argues.
Even ‘Alpha’ leaders are human
“She doesn't owe anybody anything,” says Danielle. “You don't know how long she has been working in order to get to a place to decide her mental health is more important.”
But, Toure argues, Simone Biles is not “just another player” on Team USA –– “she is the alpha leader.”
“She is a human being,” Danielle fires back. “I don't give a fuck what your talent is. The only responsibility you have as a human is to make sure you are okay, that you can show up every day.”
Danielle doesn’t understand “why we think we own these people,” she adds. “Like we get to dictate how and when they should be able to be brutalized for our entertainment, whether it be emotionally or physically.”
She thinks 24-year-old Biles knows that Tokyo might well be her last Olympics. It’s unlikely she will be able to match her records at age 28.
And in the end, her choice to sit this one out may have been better for the team. At a press conference after Team USA won silver, Biles told reporters she “didn’t want to risk the team a medal for … my screw-ups, because they’ve worked way too hard for that.”
‘Twisties’ and turns
In recent years, Simone Biles has become a fierce advocate for sexual assault survivors and talked about channeling her trauma into motivation to compete.
So to say Biles dropped out of the Games because she can't withstand pressure is ludicrous, says Danielle, who applauds Biles for “placing her emotional stability ahead of medals, which she already has. She has already earned GOAT status time and time again.”
Toure doesn’t argue about the fact that Biles “has proven her mental toughness over and over and over. I am not questioning her character. I am not questioning her legacy. She remains the greatest gymnast of all time.”
But he thinks that, in this competition, she “choked.” Biles got a case of what gymnasts call the “twisties” –– a phenomenon of losing one’s sense of space and direction in midair, even if they’ve practiced a maneuver for years.
Biles’ performance in the initial rotation at Ariake Gymnastics Centre was “terrible, relative to Simone Biles,” Toure says. “She was losing her place in the air. That's a form of choking. We've seen this in other sports, where the second baseman is suddenly, after years of mastering the sport, unable to throw to first base and he's throwing it into the stands.”
Gymnastics is a mind game
Danielle thinks it’s ludicrous for Toure to claim Biles “choked.”
“The assumption you're making is that the spotlight is just too big or she is afraid of something.” she says, pointing out that gymnastics is radically different in crucial ways from “track, tennis, or any sport that doesn't involve you catapulting your body through the air. If you are not pristine, you could end up paralyzed.”
Danielle thinks there’s an even stronger mental component to gymnastics than other sports.
“This is not like fucking running a basketball down the court and shooting it and, Oh, I fell down and hurt my ankle. It's like, No, I don't land right, I can break my back and never be able to walk again.”
In recent days Biles posted training videos on Instagram (since deleted) that suggest just how dangerous the “twisties” can be.
“At the end of the day, I had to do what was right for me,” Biles told the New York Times. “It just sucks that it happened at the Olympic Games.”
‘We can shape our feelings’
Toure respects the fact that gymnastics “has a particular danger, in that you could hurt yourself very badly if you are not paying attention. Gymnastics is unique in that way, or perhaps maybe like racecar driving or boxing –– putting you on the edge of serious life damage for a long term if you're just a little unfocused.”
But he’s troubled by the idea that it's “okay to walk away. I don't want to minimize feelings, but I also know that we can shape our feelings.”
If you break your leg, there's nothing you can do –– you're stuck for six months until the bones heal, he adds. But feelings change (and can be changed) much more quickly.
“Where would we be if it was cool to walk away when things were really hard, especially when you are the leader, the one we look to on the team?”
He also dislikes how sports are often minimized in these kinds of conversations –– “the idea that it's just sports,” he says. “It's an incredibly important aspect of life. It is the thing Biles has dedicated her life to. She is not a weekend warrior. This is incredibly important to her and all the people around her.”
‘Grind culture’ can injure both body and spirit
Toure argues that Biles’ exit reflects “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and that “she wants to put her emotions ahead of what is basically her job; she wants to put her feelings ahead of sports.”
He wonders if we’d ever accept LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods –– “or even Serena, quitting at the highest level when there's too much pressure.”
Danielle is shocked by that argument, which she thinks is “minimizing mental health, as if everyone should go through life fucking grinning and bearing it, especially as Black women who have to grin and bear every fucking thing this society places on us.”
She thinks Toure has “no idea what it is like to be in a body that is consistently under somebody else's fucking microscope,” not to mention the “pain and trauma and anxiety and stress and rage” Biles might feel.
“Maybe you’re able to compartmentalize … but you should observe yourself and figure out why we have to adapt to this grind culture that is seeking to erase our humanity, to function in this system where all they want is output, output, output,” she adds.
“We don't have enough conversations about mental health in this country. If she were to break her ankle, you would have been like, Oh, well, that sucks. That's terrible. But somehow we're supposed to always perform with broken spirits? It's too much.”
Training wheels and tenacity
The sticking point for Toure is that comments about Biles’ withdrawal “are extremely one sided, saying, This is courageous. It’s so fantastic she is prioritizing this [her mental health] over the thing that she's been prioritizing for years.”
But, he argues, “the many of us who are like, No –– she choked. It's cool; it happens. But, like, she choked … We feel like we can't really say anything, because the other side is like, Oh my God, you're a horrible person for saying that. For not applauding somebody who decided to walk away.”
Toure is reminded of teaching his daughter to ride a bicycle when she was five or six years old. She was on the cusp of getting it, but hadn’t quite done so yet, “and she was crying,” he says.
“My wife was saying, maybe we should stop. And I said, Maybe you should go in the house, because we’re going to get this. And we kept going. A few minutes later, she broke through and she got it. But if we had stopped because she was crying, because it’s hard, maybe to this day, she wouldn't know how to ride a bike.”
He feels that it’s a crucial lesson for kids and adults alike: “We don't bail out because things are hard.”
Toure on ‘Tucker’? No way
“I know a place where your opinion is being spewed right now,” Danielle tells Toure.
“You could go to Fox and sit down with Laura and Tucker and talk about all the ways in which Simone Biles is a quitter. And you could absolutely talk about mental health and emotional instability in very flimsy ways.”
Toure wouldn’t do that, of course.
“Intentionality is important,” he says. “And I don't make this point without respect for Black women, respect for female athletes, respect for mental health.”