Whose Opinion About Simone Biles Matters?

Simone Biles at 2016 Rio Olympics
Image Credit: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil made available through Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil


Misogyny and bigotry on view

It was inevitable that people, especially men, most of whom can’t even do a cartwheel, would loudly voice their opinions about Simone Biles when she pulled out of Olympic competition a week into the Tokyo games. I am not surprised at the number of tweets and comments and full think pieces that chide the record breaking Olympian for bowing out so early. Athletes shamed her, one of whom, Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic, criticized Biles for not being able to handle the pressure of professional sport, but then threw a violent tantrum when he lost his bronze qualifying match a few days later.

Even Rochester local Rush Limbaugh wannabe, Bob Lonsberry, got in on the action with an exceptionally vitriolic, racist, and misogynistic screed that not only questioned whether Simone Biles should be considered American at all, but also claimed that she should have acted like her enslaved ancestors and taken whatever abuse she received, like being transported in the belly of a ship to a strange land and forced to work on penalty of torture and death.

It never ceases to amaze me how utterly repulsive Lonsberry can be and still have a job and fanbase in the Rochester area, but then I remember that this IS Rochester, and we have a hard time dealing with racism in any tangible way, but I digress. The point is that I wholeheartedly expected (mostly) men who couldn’t throw a whiffle ball 5 feet to have a lot of opinions about Simone Biles and her choices. Most of the sentiment is just thinly veiled misogyny and/or bigotry that is laid on just enough to allow the writer plausible deniability.


Black men also participate in misogynoir

I was disappointed at the number of Black men in my personal circle who also had negative things to say about Simone Biles. Their “opinions” echo that of their white counterparts, and they give white racists a shield for their hatred of Biles and Black people by using those Black men as ventriloquist dummies for their canned thoughts. This is like what Candace Owens willingly does for your conservative uncle with a hot take on the Black Lives Matter movement.

They now have a Negro Shield. The most egregious takes came from Michael Che’s Instagram account, where the author claimed he had about three minutes of jokes roasting Biles, and then opened the comment section for followers’ jokes which he then displayed and “rated,” and even a “joke” regarding her assault at the hands of disgraced physician Larry Nasser. He claims he was hacked and has since cleared out his entire Instagram. Though I am disappointed, I am not surprised. Black men participate in misogynoir just as much as everyone else. We don’t support our sisters, mothers, and friends. We just make vapid gestures like exalting them to deity and royalty status in words, but then we continue to dismiss their hard work and needs. Simone Biles was an unstoppable superhero the week prior, but now, according to men, she is nothing but a quitter and loser.


We need to stop pretending that mental health isn’t physical health

I believe the speculation after the public learning that it was a “mental issue” that triggered Biles to bow out is that the mental issue was a common one, like anxiety or nervousness. This news is coming off the heels of Naomi Osaka withdrawing from Wimbledon a few weeks ago for her mental health. Even if this were the case here, it is none of our business. We are not performing superhuman feats in front of millions of people every day, where every slight misstep is scrutinized and literally given a number grade. We have no inkling about the pressure an athlete faces, let alone one of the greatest athletes in the world. We need to stop pretending that mental health isn’t physical health, and it needs to be exercised as much as our muscles.

The truth is that Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympic Games because she was suffering from a mental/physical ailment called the twisties. This is a common thing to happen to gymnasts. It is a mental block that keeps an athlete from being able to tell up from down, and they often occur while in the middle of performing a movement.

Last year I suffered from vertigo brought on by vestibular neuronitis. It was so bad that I couldn’t keep my eyes open without becoming violently nauseous. I walked with a cane for weeks so that I wouldn’t tip over. I couldn’t practice capoeira (a sport/martial art very near and dear to me) for a year. I was only doing it recreationally. I can’t imagine the horror of not knowing up from down in the middle of doing a flip. Gymnastics is a sport full of movements and feats that if executed poorly can injure or kill you, and it is also Biles’s career and profession.

Both coaches and physicians strongly suggested that she not participate in the Games, because of them, and she obliged. Simone Biles did not quit or give up. She maintained her safety so that she can perform again. She is 24 years old and still at the top of her field. If we would all like to see her continue to excel, sacrificing one Olympic competition seems reasonable. That said, it is really up to Simone Biles herself what she wants to do from here.


The only opinion that matters is Biles’

The positive thing is that there are athletes who HAVE said positive things about Simone Biles and her withdrawal. British track cyclist Callum Skinner pointed out that mental issues don’t go away when you win a title or medal, and withdrawing is just the athlete being honest. Also, Usain Bolt showed his support by stating, “You can be really fit but if you’re not mentally prepared for the challenge ahead, at times, you will fail, because at times you get into your head and you start thinking about your weaknesses.” This is heartening and makes me hope that perhaps the negative attention is being reporting more than the support.

But bottom line, there is a small circle of people about whose opinion truly matters regarding Simone Biles and her decision to bow out of the Olympic Games. These people would have to work their entire lives in gymnastics, perfecting their craft to compete on the world stage at least three times. They would have gymnastic movements named after them, because they are that good.

They would need to create movements so astounding that gymnastics governing bodies would ban them from doing the moves again, out of “fairness” because no other gymnast can execute them without severely hurting themselves. They would need to have won at least 31 world championship medals, including 6 Olympic medals, 4 of which are gold. They would have to achieve all these feats despite dealing with the trauma of being sexually assaulted by a serial predator who used his position in the sport to exploit young women and girls. I guess my small circle would be Simone Biles alone. No one else’s opinion of her actions regarding her health mean anything to me, and it should not to you either.

3 Responses

  1. Great piece, Chris, thanks! I have nothing but respect and awe not only for Simone Biles but for all accomplished athletes. I would never presume to dismiss an athlete’s challenges. I experience vertigo with some frequency, and it’s esp scary if it comes on when I’m driving and can’t easily pull over. But even more frightening (for me and some other skiers I know) is what’s called “ski sickness,” and can happen on days of fog/blizzard. When I can’t see any breaks in the white, I sometimes lose track of whether I’m going uphill or downhill, or whether I’m moving at all. It’s a terrifying sensation — esp when I *must* keep moving to get down the mountain. I’ve skied right off the trail in such conditions — and, at some ski areas, it’s entirely possible to ski off a cliff. Needless to say, I try never to get caught in such conditions, but sometimes fog sneaks up on you. Here’s what I found online about this phenomenon: “Ski sickness was first described scientifically in 1994 by Rudolf Häusler, a professor in the Bern University Hospital’s ear, nose and throat department. Häusler’s 1995 paper, in the journal Acta Oto-Laryngologica, argued the disorientation is not only due to vision problems but also the effect of making turns on an uneven surface, which messes with the vestibular organs in your inner ear that regulate your balance. Here’s the article’s abstract: ‘Dizziness with illusionary rotatory or pendular sensations and disequilibrium accompanied by nausea and occasionally by vomiting may appear during down-hill skiing. It is proposed that the condition is called “ski sickness”. Ski sickness seems to represent a special form of motion sickness produced by unusual and contradictory sensory information between the visual, vestibular and somato-sensory system. The pathophysiology seems to be related to vestibular overstimulation from winding turns on uneven ground, insufficient visual control, especially on foggy days with reduced visibility (on so called “white days”), often in connection with minor ophthalmologic problems such as myopia or astigmatism and altered somato-sensory input due to the wearing of ski boots and skis.’

    I have nothing good to say about people who have criticized Biles’ decisions — particularly those who make money off their obnoxious commentary. My guess is that people who enjoy bashing Biles haven’t achieved any gravity-defying athletic pursuits of their own, nor do they have degrees in otolaryngology.

    1. SKI SICKNESS! That sounds incredibly frightening; I can’t imagine. This shows how important it is to listen to professionals when they say something isn’t right. Thank you, Rose!

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