U.S. journalism wins gold in mental gymnastics

4 August 2021

6:16 PM

4 August 2021

6:16 PM

From softball to women’s soccer to the mixed relay, the United States has had an underwhelming Olympics. But fear not, Americans. Cockburn has good news: American athletes, and the people who write about them, are lapping the field in the new, sadly still un-medaled sport of athletic narcissism.

Last week, U.S. gymnastics super-duperstar Simone Biles yanked herself from the team all-around final because, well, it’s unclear. Biles has claimed that after a decade competing at the sport’s highest level, she was suddenly hit with  “the twisties” and couldn’t orient herself while in the air, and so she dropped out to protect her safety. She then dropped out of the individual all-around, and several single-discipline contests. Biles finally trotted out for the balance beam on Tuesday, delivering a solid performance and taking home the bronze medal.

Cockburn isn’t capable of deducing whether Biles is telling the truth that competing would have been unsafe. But it seems odd for a two-time Olympian and world champ to suddenly lose her prowess at the last minute on a stage where virtually every competitor finds a way to power through the pressure. In the immediate aftermath of her withdrawal, Biles suggested there was a lot more going on than a straightforward inability to compete.

“This Olympic Games I wanted it to be for myself,” Biles said last week. “I came in and felt like I was still doing it for other people. That just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”

It is difficult to imagine a statement more antithetical to the Olympic spirit, to national pride, or to true sportsmanship. Every U.S. Olympian is a representative of their country and the dozens of people who sacrificed to bring them to the apex of human competition. Every Olympian on a team is part of a collective effort to achieve success; to falter is to let down teammates who have prepared for a lifetime.

Biles faltered. That is not a sin or a transgression, but it’s a disappointment. It is not heroic.

Yet right now, America’s opinion leaders seem determined to exalt Ms. Biles until she risks becoming an ego monster. After she withdrew from the first two individual events, USA Gymnastics made sure to clarify in public that “we remain in awe of Simone,” as though she were the pharaoh of Egypt.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki declared to the assembled press corps that Biles is “still the GOAT,” with the speed and conviction that can only come from knowing that it’s not true.

Slate argued that, by simply not competing at all rather than deigning to defeat her rivals, Biles proved “she’ll always be the GOAT.” With such sycophancy to summon on command, can we be surprised at what happened? If you can be the greatest ever just by existing, without competing, why compete?

So Biles returns home with a silver and bronze, a lukewarm end to a stellar career. But Americans can take heart that the U.S. press corps will still return home with a gold medal in mental gymnastics. In the weeks before the games, it blasted Americans with headlines like “Gymnastics Doesn’t Know What to Do With Simone Biles’s Dominance: Her greatness is a form of resistance.”

After she left her team in the lurch, the same publications (often the same writers) told us “Simone Biles Doesn’t Need to Look Invincible.”

Thanks for the after-school cartoon lesson, but nobody was arguing that Simone Biles needs to be invincible, or even good. Athletes falter all the time, and only warped obsessives resent them for it.

But for all of history, the most celebrated athletes are those who win spectacularly, or those who power through mental, emotional, and physical strain. In Brett Favre’s storied two-decade NFL career, almost any fan would agree his greatest moment was when he dominated the Oakland Raiders in a must-win game just hours after the abrupt death of his father. In the Olympics, Shun Fujimoto is remembered for powering through a damaged knee to win Japan the gymnastics team gold. Would it have been healthier to drop out instead? Certainly. But it would not be legendary.

That is the real tragedy of the Simone Biles situation. Quitting under pressure may be natural, understandable, or necessary. But never before has it been heroic. Biles deserves credit for returning and making out with a bronze. But her own achievement is tarnished by the immense effort the American press made to argue that she need not compete at all.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments