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Monday, August 9, 2021

OPINION:

Like a farmer who gets paid for not growing his crops, Simone Biles has reaped the rewards of not competing as these Coronavirus Olympics came to a close.

We’ve seen Biles compete before — four gold medals in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, plus 19 first-place finishes at the World Championships since 2014. But not compete? We never saw that one before, and the world loved her for it.


“Simone Biles’s Wiithdrawal at the Olympics Shows Her Greatness,” the Atlantic headline said.

“Gratitude and support are what Simone Biles deserves,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted. “Still the GOAT and we are all just lucky to be able to see her in action.”

Pardon me, but as I understand it, isn’t the GOAT identification part of the problem? The pressure of being labeled the greatest of all time? Biles spoke to feeling “the weight of the world on her shoulders at times” on her Instagram account before the Games began. But in 2019, in an interview with USA Today, Biles herself declared she was the greatest gymnast ever, and her leotard logo embraced the GOAT weight.

Her sponsor, Athleta, issued a statement saying it stood by Biles. “Being the best also means knowing how to take care of yourself,” CEO Kyle Andrew said.

Of course they did. The same day Biles pulled out of the competition, Athleta launched a well-being platform for women “to connect on a range of topics rooted in female wellbeing.”

Finally, we have the canonization of Simone Biles — a holy woman.

In his article, “The Spiritual Strength of Simone Biles,” Zac Davis, of America: The Jesuit Review magazine, wrote that “Simone Biles is widely acknowledged as the greatest gymnast of all time. But in light of her decision yesterday to withdraw from the individual all-around gymnastics competition at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games, it’s time to acknowledge her new public role of spiritual director.”

When the 24-year-old Biles pulled out of the women’s gymnastics team finals, the initial reaction was shock and more. Her teammates were reportedly stunned, as was the rest of the world watching, when she stumbled with her typical gold medal performance and then quickly announced she withdrew from the team final competition.

Everyone was stunned because the initial reaction was that she quit. But that notion was buried quickly by the explanation that Biles was having mental health issues that prevented her from being her best.

“I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to,” Biles said. “After the performance that I did, I didn’t want to go into the other events so I thought I would take a step back.”

Biles made the right decision. Perhaps the best explanation was that Biles suffered from a bout with the “twisties” — a lack of air awareness, not an uncommon issue for gymnasts during their careers. She said the “twisties” had surfaced in the morning after preliminary competitions.

“It’s the craziest feeling ever,” she said.

So this was a competition decision, one that is part of the world of gymnastics. It prevented her from competing, so she didn’t compete.

Yet her legion of protectors sought to paint this as some sort of seminal moment in sports, where an athlete refuses to compete because of mental health issues, an overreaction and overcompensation to protect her legacy and defend her decision.

To her credit, she worked through it like many other athletes do when faced with a similar issue, winning a bronze medal in the balance beam.

But Biles jumped on board the story that this was a historic decision she made that perhaps changed the world of sports.

“I think we opened bigger doors and bigger conversations,” she said.

The foundation for this historic change in sports is based in part on the connection made to 23-year-old Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open. But that was not a competition issue. That was an accountability and responsibility issue, not even remotely connected to what Biles went through, though the gymnast said she was inspired by Osaka’s decision.

Make no mistake about it, that decision was about control as much as anything. The tennis star objected to post-match press conferences, saying they caused her anxiety.

After the decision, Osaka wrote in Time magazine, “I communicated that I wanted to skip press conferences at Roland Garros to exercise self-care and preservation of my mental health,” she wrote.

This was how she communicated that, four days before the tournament – on her Instagram account. “If the organizations think they can keep saying, ‘do press or you’re going to get fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh,” Osaka wrote.

Me, too.

I just gotta laugh.

In a statement, French Open officials said they tried to contact Osaka to discuss her problem and possibly work out a solution. She refused to respond, they said.

“Following this announcement, the Roland-Garros teams asked her to reconsider her position and tried unsuccessfully to speak with her to check on her well-being, understand the specifics of her issue and what might be done to address it on site,” tournament officials wrote. “Following the lack of engagement by Naomi Osaka, the Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open jointly wrote to her to check on her well-being and offer support, underline their commitment to all athletes’ well-being and suggest dialog on the issues. She was also reminded of her obligations, the consequences of not meeting them and that rules should equally apply to all players.”

When that happened, Osaka bailed on Wimbledon as well, took her racket and went home — with a stop in Tokyo at the Olympics (excuse me while I light this torch in front of the whole world).

I am sure that Osaka has mental health issues. She said she has suffered from depression for years. But this was a power play, not even remotely connected to what Biles went through. Her lack of response to tour officials revealed that.

Biles has said she has mental health issues and takes medication for anxiety. To be frank, I’m surprised she and any of the young women that came out of the corrupt USA Gymnastics program — victims of sexual predator Dr. Larry Nasser — can compete given what they’ve been through.

For that matter, they compete in a dysfunctional sport that demands sometimes inhuman requirements of children. In a 1992 NCAA survey, 51% of the programs that responded reported eating disorders among its team members — much greater than any other sports.

If we are serious about mental health, let’s start by eliminating a debilitating sport instead of glorifying it. That would be a game-changing moment.

Who’s with me? I didn’t think so.

• You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.


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