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Opinion: ‘Simone Biles doesn’t owe us a darn thing’: Readers on athletes as commodities

Simone Biles prepares to perform on the vault during the Summer Olympics in Tokyo on July 27.
American gymnast Simone Biles prepares to perform on the vault during the Summer Olympics in Tokyo on July 27.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

By now, you’ve probably heard everything that needs to be said about Olympic athletes Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka. The Times’ editorial board weighed in on Biles, arguably the greatest American gymnast ever, praising her for highlighting the mental health struggles of athletes when she announced her decision to withdraw from the team competition and individual all-around final this week; so have sports pundits, some less charitably than others.

So why spill more ink on this topic now, and especially on a letters page? Because if anyone is piling on Biles and Osaka as if the 20-something athletes were commodities, it isn’t our readers.

Their letters, even those critical of athletes chafing under extraordinary pressure, betray feelings of empathy and compassion that may be more abundant among Olympic watchers than professional commentators. The letters also demonstrate a panoramic view of sports, one that regards the athletes as humans first and competitors second.

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To the editor: Simone Biles doesn’t owe us a darn thing. It is pure selfishness on my part to wish to see her again defy gravity and corporal limitation. She has taken my breath away more times than I can count.

Biles has been a standard-bearer for gymnastics. And women’s gymnastics. And Black women in gymnastics. And victims of sexual abuse in women’s gymnastics.

And now, she is a standard-bearer for mental health.

Some have derided her decision to withdraw from competition as “letting the team down.” But Biles knew what was wrong and what was right and acted accordingly, offering love and support to her teammates. It was an act of selflessness and self-care.

We have come to expect that people who are capable of magical things are also magically immune to normal human struggles. That does not go with the territory.

Anita George, Altadena

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To the editor: Former sportswriter here, about to criticize many of my own.

I am old enough to remember when ABC covered the Summer Olympics, a glory period that ended with the Los Angeles Games in 1984. ABC had a very popular sports features program, “Wide World of Sports,” and used that same approach in the Olympics to introduce Americans to little-known athletes from around the world who had fantastic back stories.

In contrast, NBC, which took over coverage in 1988, picks a handful of American athletes that it believes will win multiple medals and then over-promotes them, often to the point of making even ardent sports fans sick to death of hearing yet another angle to the oft-repeated story of USA basketball, Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky or Simone Biles.

And then, the sportswriters from major newspapers follow NBC’s lead, putting pressure on athletes and resulting in fewer gold medals than expected.

The Olympics are one of the few truly international competitions, but the coverage I get these days is far too narrow. Sportscasters and sportswriters, you take much of the blame on this one.

Diane Scholfield, Vista

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To the editor: I grew up watching ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” Its intro exalted the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” and the “human drama” of athletic competition.

When did we lose that, the mystery of the outcome? That’s what makes sports so compelling. You don’t know the outcome, and if you do the game has been fixed.

So what happens at the Olympics or who the star ends up being should be a mystery, not a foregone conclusion. Biles’ actions should be looked at in that context — the human drama called sports, called life.

So in between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat is life. For some crazed sports fanatics fixating on Biles, I suggest they get one of their own.

Warren Furutani, Gardena

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To the editor: The athletes withdrawing from competition remind me of actors who achieve fame but resent having to give up their privacy because they are so easily recognized when they go out in public. These athletes strive their entire young lives to achieve fortune and fame, and then after attaining it, quarrel with the fact that there are either news conferences to appear at or records to try to maintain or break.

In Biles’ case, she gained a spot on the Olympic team that a more desirous applicant might have been given. She owes her fans, her teammates, her country and other athletes striving to make the Olympic team a better posture and attitude.

Barry S. Rubin, Beverly Hills

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To the editor: With the media coverage to which young athletes are subjected in 2021, it’s no surprise that Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka became their victims.

How would you feel, as a teenager or young adult, if a burly man with a camera approached you and stuck a lens in your face — without permission, introduction or consideration — just as you were preparing to perform in front of a worldwide audience?

These athletes are not trained actors. They don’t have practice dealing with this. They spend much of their time alone, training.

But to the International Olympic Committee and the media, these kids have become commodities.

And then there are the denizens of the internet. One remark from a racist and angry social media user can implode a thousand attaboys or attagirls. Give the kids a break.

Buz Wolf, Studio City


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