Former Olympians, celebrities, and political figures from the liberal side of the spectrum rushed to defend Biles after she was attacked from the white-dominated right for bailing out following a sub-par performance that put the US team’s medal prospect in jeopardy. Widely considered the greatest American gymnast of all time, Biles, who is black, was expected to lead the US to a clutch of team and individual gold medals att Tokyo, after her four-gold medal performance at the Rio 2016 Games, including the individual all-around title.
But after stumbles in the early rounds she dropped out of events “to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” triggering criticism from right wing commentators, one of whom called her a “selfish sociopath” and a “shame to the country,” and said “We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles.”
Underlying Biles’ withdrawal and reference to mental health issues is a troubling story surrounding sexual abuse she and other female gymnasts endured at the hands of Larry Nassar, doctor for the US women’s national gymnastics team, who was subsequently convicted and sentenced to de facto life without parole.
“We are talking about the same girl who was molested by her team doctor throughout her entire childhood and teenage years. That girl has endured more trauma by the age of 24 than most people will ever go through in a lifetime,” Andrea Orris, a former gymnast-turned-fitness trainer said.
Biles also found support from the Biden-Harris establishment and many current and former athletes. “Putting your mental health first is hard in normal circumstances. Doing it when the eyes of the world are upon you takes extraordinary strength. Grateful to @Simone_Biles for demonstrating what strength looks like on and off the mat. Proud to have her represent our nation,” tweeted US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
Putting your mental health first is hard in normal circumstances. Doing it when the eyes of the world are upon you… https://t.co/HcK6bsjWAN
— Dr. Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) 1627478810000
Michael Phelps, the iconic swimmer who holds the record as the most decorated Olympian in history, said top level athletes need support if they feel the need to be themselves and become vulnerable, rather than someone trying to fix them. “We carry a lot of weight on our shoulders, and it’s challenging… especially when we have the lights on us and all of these expectations that are being thrown on top of us,” he said during an NBC broadcast.
But Biles was attacked viciously why right-wing trolls, some of whom saw her withdrawal as signs of American decline while invoking the “courage” of Kerry Strug, an American gymnast who performed despite an injured ankle prompting or hectoring of her coach at the Atlanta Olympics.
Biles’ defenders however argued that more recent disclosures of what gymnasts are put through in a win-at-all-cost culture raised questions about whether Strug’s effort was raw courage or coercion.
“It takes strength to admit weakness. It takes courage, after grueling years of training, to walk away from a life- long dream. It takes humility to determine that teammates will likely score higher without her. Simone Biles is all class,” the actress Mia Farrow tweeted.
It takes strength to admit weakness. It takes courage, after grueling years of training, to walk away from a life-… https://t.co/3ecyuD3zsN
— Mia Farrow (@MiaFarrow) 1627485493000