The Celebration of a Quitter: Simone Biles gives up in Tokyo and is called a hero

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Look. It is simple. Simone Biles is not a hero, despite her highly praised revelation that she just can’t mentally carry on in the Olympic gymnastics competition.

Let me unequivocally and bluntly tell you what Simone Biles is: A quitter.

But from the way Biles is being praised this week, you might think that the decorated superstar put on a heroic display during the team competition in Tokyo and led her squad to a gold medal.

Public accolades have been heaped on Biles from prominent politicians like Ayanna Pressley and Cori Bush. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki expressed “gratitude and support.” Deadspin gushed over “the most impressive move of her career.”

Former Olympians joined in the group hug even though most of them actually reached their goals and never expressed doubt, fear, angst or anxiety as Biles has done this week in Tokyo. Articles have been written extolling her bravery and declaring that her achievements this week have sent a “powerful message” to the world.

CNN called her performance “impactful.” She has been hailed for her strength and for “setting an amazing example” and being a great athlete and role model. Women’s advocacy groups have thanked her.

Excuse me, but past generations of athletes, military figures, suffers of terminal disease, those confronted with dire situations involving life and death would wonder at her willingness to throw away every promise and commitment Biles has made to herself, her teammates, and her country over “pressure.”

After struggling in the qualifying rounds, and botching her first event in the women’s team finals, Biles decided to withdraw from the meet. One of the most recognized U.S. Olympic athletes of all time, one of the most celebrated athletes in Olympic history, chose to abandon her team in the middle of the finals. Her teammates would finish second behind Russia, while Biles went on to receive even more acclaim than a gold medal would have earned her.

Compare Bile’s pathetic display to that of Kerri Strug, one of the “Magnificent Seven” at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. As the team competition neared its end, Kerri was up last on vault. After shocking spectators by falling and injuring her ankle on her first vault, she managed to stick the landing on her second vault before collapsing in pain.

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Her true bravery — unlike the misappropriated heroism credited to Biles — helped secure gold for the American team. It was a moment that landed Kerri on the front page of newspapers around the world and catapulted her into the spotlight.  She was only eighteen years old.

The initial reports concerning Biles’ withdrawal from the team competition in Tokyo suggested she had a physical injury. That simply was not the case. She explained she left the competition in order to focus on her mental health and her “mindfulness.” Biles complained that the Olympics haven’t been “fun” this year.

“This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself when I came in — and I felt like I was still doing it for other people,” she said. Returning to this theme later, she said that it’s important to “put mental health first” because if you don’t then “you’re not going to enjoy your sport.” She complained about the pressure that she’s under.

Though people in all walks of life quit their responsibilities all the time, it is unexpected in the ranks of professionals, athletes, soldiers, and others whose commitment is depended on by those equally committed to the common cause they share. People quit things all the time, and they almost always do so because the thing they are quitting is too difficult and not very fun. This is the universal rationale of all quitters everywhere, throughout history.

In this case, there is no doubt that the difficult thing was very difficult indeed. The pressure Biles experiences as a world-famous athlete on a global stage must be quite burdensome on both an emotional and physical level. This is what makes quitting understandable.

The one thing that it cannot be is admirable.

If Simone Biles had bailed on her team and apologized after the fact, and the public had reacted appropriately to the news, then there wouldn’t be much to else to say on the matter. It is hard to compete in the Olympics. It is hard to live up to high expectations. Lots of people quit when things are hard. We all have, at one time or another. That is why, when someone quits, we normally shake our heads and say, “That’s a shame,” and then we move on with our lives. Nobody is suggesting that athletes who quit ought to be tarred and feathered in the street. It is enough to be disappointed and be done with it.

The problem is that now we are exhorted not simply to understand why someone quits, but to actively applaud them for doing so. What makes the Simone Biles story troubling is not that the women’s gymnastics team had to settle for a silver medal, but that our cultural powers-that-be want us to celebrate cowardice.

As always, it is not enough to merely tolerate another person’s decision or to be compassionate towards their struggles. We are meant, now, to rise to our feet and joyously cheer what all people throughout history, and most people living in the world today, would consider shameful and unfortunate. It is one thing to say: “Simone Biles quit, but let’s have some empathy.” It is quite another to say: “Simone Biles quit. Isn’t that so brave?”

No, no it is not brave. It may be human, it may be relatable, but it is the opposite of brave. To be brave is to refuse to quit precisely when most people would. Again, consider Kerri Strug.

That is why we admire people who persevere: They are rare. Quitters are a dime a dozen. Cowardice is in no short supply in our world, and it will become even more common now that we have rebranded it as courage. Indeed, if we will grant to cowardice the rewards of courage without the effort and sacrifice, why bother with courage at all?

The many defenders of Simone Biles have said that she is right — a role model, in fact — for prioritizing her “mental health” above all else. In the era of the Psychological Man, when there is nothing more important than the self’s opinion of itself, it is perhaps no surprise that we should congratulate a woman for explicitly putting herself before her team and her country,

Yet and still, one wonders how consistently this new moral code would be applied. Would Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady receive such worshipful reactions if they left in the third quarter of a playoff game because they “weren’t having fun” and needed to work on their “mindfulness”?

Such a thing is almost unthinkable because it has never happened and probably never would. But there have been cases of sulking professional athletes leaving the field or the court a few seconds early because they were frustrated and sad during a bad loss. We’ve seen this move from LeBron James, for example, perhaps the greatest sulker in all of sports.

There are usually a few people willing to defend this kind of behavior from male athletes, but they’ve never been celebrated like a returning war hero the way Simone Biles has been, and Naomi Osaka before her.

Perhaps we will get there one day, though. Maybe we are fast approaching a time when the greatest athletes will be those who manage to feel the best about themselves while competing. At that point, we will not need them to perform any athletic feats at all. They can simply stand in a circle and whisper sweet nothings to themselves.

Everyone wins in the end, everyone gets a trophy. It may not make for much of a spectator sport, but at least we will know that nobody’s mental health has been damaged.

Mike Nichols is a conservative, a patriot, U.S. Army veteran, behavioral therapist, political enthusiast, sports fan and writer living with his beautiful wife Liz in the Heartland. He has a regular blog at America’s Conservative Voice on Substack

Image at top: By Agência Brasil Fotografias – EUA levam ouro na ginástica artística feminina; Brasil fica em 8º lugar, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50584791

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