Here is the jaw-dropping opening to the New York Times report updated a few minutes ago:
“In the biggest upset for the United States at the Tokyo Games, Simone Biles withdrew from the gymnastics team competition after it had started on Tuesday, handing Russia’s squad a path to the gold medal and ending American domination of the event for more than a decade. Biles, Team U.S.A.’s star, said she pulled out of the event because she wasn’t in the right place mentally to perform the difficult and often dangerous skills she is known for, after feeling so much pressure to be successful. She had been struggling with the stress of being the greatest gymnast in history, she said, and outside expectations were just too hard to combat. It is not clear whether she will compete in her individual events.“
I have been following sports, and especially team sports, since I was 12-years-old. I cannot imagine any male athlete withdrawing from his team during a crucial series or before a pivotal game because he “wasn’t in the right place” mentally, or because he was feeling “pressure to be successful.” Any male athlete behaving like this would be universally condemned by the sportswriting establishment, team members and fans, and rightfully so. But The Boston Glob’s Tara Sullivan this morning provided another jaw-dropping article headlined, “Bravo to Simone Biles for taking care of herself when she needs it most.”
When she needed it most? The entire concept of a team, be it in sports or in any other pursuit, is to sacrifice one’s own desires and comfort when the team needs it most. In the 1996 Summer Olympics, female gymnast Kerri Strug sucked it up and preserved her team’s medal by performing a vault despite a seriously injured ankle. This was hailed as the epitome of sportsmanship and athletic courage. Now Biles quits her team because, as she wrote on Instagram before her decision, “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.” Indeed, every star and superstar on any team seeking the distinction of a championship facing top competition feels the weight on his or her shoulders. Only Biles not only decided that this was ample justification to abandon her team mates, but is being praised for it. Astounding. Astounding. I keep thinking about how I would react as stage director to the leading actor in a stage production who came to me on opening night and said, “I just can’t go on. The pressure is too much!”
Biles choked, that’s all. It happens to lots of elite athletes when the spotlight gets too hot, and that’s one way we distinguish the truly great from the pretenders. Sometimes it’s unfair: Ted Williams only played in one World Series, and stunk. He was injured but never complained or used his injury as an excuse; still the Boston sportswriters heaped abuse on him, writing for decades that when the Red Sox needed him most, he couldn’t come through. But Williams, who was a war hero and fighter pilot that even his worst enemies never accused of not having guts, didn’t quit his team during the 1946 World Series because he was afraid of hurting himself worse or because he felt the “weight of the world’ on his shoulders. If he had, he would have been run out of town.
Williams is just the first example that came to mind; there are too many others to count. Biles isn’t a child; she’s 24. In women’s gymnastics, that’s a crusty veteran, and someone who should be counted upon to be a role model. If female athletes are going to insist on equal respect and equal compensation in comparison to male athletes, they can’t simultaneously be held to different, lesser, “kinder” standards. Unless Biles is suffering from something a lot more serious than a crisis of confidence and the bruised ego of a superstar for whom winning has been all too easy in the past, her withdrawal is a betrayal of her team and her sport, and she should now have to shoulder exactly the kind of criticism any male athlete would who behaved similarly.