Updated: Aug 17, 2021
Recently, United States gymnast Simone Biles made headlines at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for all the wrong reasons. The world-renowned gymnast and four-time Olympic gold medal winner didn’t wow us with a brilliant floor routine or absolutely dominate the competition like she did at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Instead, she withdrew from the team final and then withdrew from individual events, citing mental health issues. In essence, she quit. One would think that such a stunning decision from the world’s best gymnast would warrant a negative reaction across the globe, but it hasn’t. The sports world has expressed its support for her decision. News organization after news organization has clamored about the importance of focusing on mental health. Current and former teammates of Biles have defended her vigorously. This is not surprising. Athletes have each other’s backs. They know how nerve-racking it can be to perform when the lights are the brightest. I think we all can imagine how stressful the Olympics can be. The whole world is watching. Athletes prepare their whole lives for these moments. They spend countless hours perfecting their crafts. The idea that an Olympic event could be as mentally-challenging as it is physically-challenging is not lost on people. But, we need to draw a line. Quitting on your team and your country at the Olympics is not worthy of praise. Biles felt that the moment was too big for her, so she decided to walk away. She prioritized her mental health over everything else. That’s all well and good. But, her actions were not “brave” like former teammate Aly Raisman suggested. Biles did not “step up” and “fight” like current teammate Sunisa Lee suggested. She did not display “strength and courage” or act like a “leader” as the Team USA Twitter account said, either. In reality, Biles succumbed to the pressure. She didn’t rise to the occasion. She didn’t confront adversity head-on. Coaches and parents alike always tell young athletes to put forth their best effort. Biles didn’t put forth any effort. She just walked away. This characterization of Biles as some sort of role model is mind-boggling. She’s considered to be the greatest of all time in her sport. She, of all people, should be confident in her abilities. Her cross-sports counterparts would have never done such a thing. Could you imagine Tom Brady doing what Biles did? Brady threw no touchdowns and a pick-6 in the first half of Super Bowl LI. His team was losing 28-3 with little more than a quarter remaining in the game. Was his confidence shaken? Did he quit because the stage was too big or the game too hard? Of course not. Could you see Michael Jordan doing this? (Taking a break from the game doesn’t count. Jordan didn’t quit on his team in the middle of the NBA Finals.) The guy didn’t even make the varsity basketball team as a high school sophomore. Did he quit? Of course not. The guy hit big shot after big shot over the course of his illustrious career. He’s even famous for saying, “Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Despite all those misses, he kept taking the big shot because he knew he was the best on the court. These are the words and actions of true role models. They don’t quit or shy away from competition. They welcome the pressure and embrace the challenge. Athletes should be encouraged to deal with challenges head-on. They should have self-confidence and put their best foot forward. Mental health is something we should all be aware of, but commending Biles for her actions misses the mark. We should offer compassion to Biles, not praise. Avoiding hardship and quitting on your team is not a good message to send to young athletes. For Biles, overcoming the self-doubt and performing with the whole world watching would‘ve qualified as heroic. Not this.