It’s the final day of women's gymnastics at the Rio Olympics, which means that tomorrow we’ll return to our regularly scheduled schlep through the forces of gravity. The stellar U.S. team, dubbed the Final Five, is led by 19-year-old Simone Biles, who’s won three gold medals and one bronze medal, and is favored in the last of the individual competitions, the floor exercise, as well. Most gymnasts fly, but Biles seems to catapult as if from a rocket launcher. Most gymnasts register deep concentration during routines, but Biles has been relaxed enough in some big meets to wink at the camera and at individual members of the crowd mid-routine. Of the many glowing adjectives used to describe her skills — “untouchable,” “ridiculously great” — the one that comes up most often is “effortless.” In a video from the Pacific Rim Championships this year that was rapturously passed around on Facebook, sports commentators can be heard speculating that “those bounces off the floor” are “not so hard at all” for Biles.
The confidence that marks Biles’ performances, and the media’s storyline about her, shows just how powerful a force “effortlessness” can be. As much as we love our heroes to be hard workers who triumph over insurmountable odds, we often love it even more if they appear to be just slightly more magical than human. At the very least, we appreciate seeing them not break a sweat. That fact is inescapable if, like me, you've been toggling between Olympics broadcasts and presidential election coverage. In particular, I am struck by the way our collective interpretation of Biles’ persona is pretty much the polar opposite of the longstanding interpretation of Hillary Clinton’s persona, especially Clinton in campaign mode.
Despite her slip on the balance beam Monday, Biles is assumed to be having a blast through all those twists and double layouts; Clinton is assumed to be gritting her teeth as she shakes hands and knocks back beers at local pubs. Biles, according to her coach, has “air sense,” an innate ability to stay oriented high off the ground; Clinton relies on cold calculations triangulated from polls to determine her next move. Biles is a “natural” (quite possibly a supernatural natural); Clinton is a drudge whose nose is perpetually and charmlessly pressed to the grindstone. Yet the contrast between the two is a fantasy.
Biles is surely among the most gifted of athletes in recent history, but if you had dedicated practically your entire young life to a punishing, dangerous sport that’s almost as brutal on your mind as on your body, would you be flattered to hear that it’s all a cakewalk for you? Biles, of course, faces performance setbacks and challenges brought on by outsize external pressures and her own perfectionism. In a recent profile in Texas Monthly, her former psychology coach recalls a once “serious and stoic” Biles who “didn’t look like she was having a very good time out there.” The coach encouraged her to smile and “put on a show,” and she generally more than complies.
In reality, Biles and Clinton have a great deal in common. They’re both trying to accomplish an extraordinarily difficult feat (winning Olympic gold, winning the presidency) and they know we’d prefer it if they made it look like they’re just kids having fun at recess. Although Biles is better than Clinton at this deception, even she displays a furrowed brow and a sharp intake of breath from time to time.
Given America’s devotion to the myth of hard work and scrappy persistence, this “make an effort to seem like you’re not making an effort” ethos represents a ruthless double standard and a strange hypocrisy. We love a classic, up-by-the-bootstraps narrative, but we’re also quick to punish those who visibly exert too much effort pulling on those straps. We demand authenticity in our public figures, then insist they smile their way through the most harrowing of ordeals.
As the media turns its attention away from the magic show of the Olympics and back to the circus of the election, it ought to stop seeing Clinton’s elbow grease as a liability. Her grinding effort is its own form of authenticity. She’s not a natural when it comes to campaigning, but her struggles on the trail are deeply human. And there’s something ridiculously great about that, too.
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