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Column: Simone Biles deserves respect, not contempt for sitting out Olympic competition

U.S. gymnast Simone Biles is consoled after competing on the vault and withdrawing from competition.
U.S. gymnast Simone Biles is consoled after competing on the vault and withdrawing from competition in the women’s team final at the Tokyo Olympics.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Simone Biles choked.

That’s what some people think.

Simone Biles ruined her legacy.

That’s what some people are saying.

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If Tom Brady or LeBron James walked out on their team during the biggest game of the season, they would be mercilessly ripped, so why is Simone Biles getting a pass?

U.S. gymnast Simone Biles says her belief you must ‘put mental health first before your sport’ prompted her to withdraw from team competition.

That’s what some people are asking.

When the chalk settled after the greatest female gymnast bravely withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics team competition Tuesday because she admittedly was overcome by the pressure, an ugly truth emerged.

Some saw her courage as cowardly. Some viewed her selflessness as traitorous. Many sports fans, used to celebrating their heroes for “sucking it up” and having “ice water in their veins,” were deeply offended.

Biles seemingly saw the wrath coming, and when the U.S. team struggled to a silver medal after her departure, she offered this heartbreaking quote to NBC’s Hoda Kotb.

“We hope America still loves us,” Biles said.

Sadly, in a word, nope.

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On Twitter, her standing as the greatest of all time — she even sewed the GOAT acronym into her leotard — was questioned.

“GOATS don’t choke.”

A double standard was raised.

Losses and missteps by Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Katie Ledecky and U.S. women’s soccer and men’s basketball teams have these Olympic Games in trouble.

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“If Tom Brady threw two interceptions in the super bowl and simply pulled himself out of the game, he would be called a quitter, choke-artist, etc. why are people treating Simone Biles with kid gloves?”

Her career was trashed.

“Your joking right? Imagine LeBron quitting on his teammates in the NBA finals because he had a bad first quarter. Wouldn’t matter if he stayed on the bench rooting for them. She destroyed her legacy forever.”

More crazy comparisons were made.

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“Simone Biles drops out because she’s not mentally strong enough lol. Imagine calling someone a GOAT at anything and they choke at the one event people care about once every four years. Yikes. Don’t think Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan would do that.”

Hyperbole abounded.

“If Simone Biles had continued, fought back and helped the team win Gold, that would make her the greatest gymnast of all time; the fact she quit when facing adversity, makes her the biggest choke in US Olympics history.”

Finally, most frightfully, some questioned her reasons for dropping out.

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“Better pull all those Simone Biles commercials…haven’t seen a choke like this since the Atlanta Falcons…Mental issues is not a medical issue.”

All of which leads this flummoxed narrator to make a simple request.

Shut up, everyone. Just, shut up.

First, do not compare Simone Biles to any athlete in any team sport ever, ever, ever.

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Gymnastics experts and those who have watched Simone Biles’ evolution explain how and why she became so much better than anyone else.

She’s not representing a city, she’s carrying the weight of an entire country. She doesn’t compete on a court with teammates who can bail her out; she’s out there on her own. Instead of working with a 100-yard field, she operates on a four-inch balance beam. Instead of playing a 162-game season, she wins or loses in 90 seconds.

Tom Brady or LeBron James cannot even imagine the pressure felt by Biles, who at age 24 was tasked with being the face of America’s Olympians in a pandemic bubble with countless protocols and no fans.

So NBA players were excused for melting down in their bubble last year — mental health issues led to the end of the Clippers’ 2020 season — yet Biles is not?

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Simone Biles and ROC's Angelina Melnikova embrace.
Simone Biles and ROC’s Angelina Melnikova embrace after the women’s team final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Yeah, she melted down. She admitted it. So what? It was just like when tennis star Naomi Osaka acknowledged her own mental health issues during the recent French Open and again when she was upset in the third round of the Olympic tournament this week.

Through the wisdom and strength of these young women, hardened sports fans are being forced to accept that injuries can encompass more than just muscles and bones, and this realization is a good thing.

L.A. Times columnists Helene Elliott, LZ Granderson, Dylan Hernández and Bill Plaschke discuss Naomi Osaka, the role of media, athletes’ mental health and more.

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Mental issues are, in fact, medical issues, and acknowledgment of this fact should lead to greater understanding and a more reasonable relationship between the athlete and the fan. Maybe think twice before you scream that someone choked when, in fact, it’s an incredible feat just to compete in the first place. Maybe listen to Biles explain her mental state before you call her a quitter.

”Today … I was just like, shaking. … I’ve never felt like this going into competition before,” she told the media during a news conference she easily could have skipped. “Once I came out, I was like, ‘No, my mental is not there.’”

Biles is not some wind-up toy. She’s a human, and if her mental wasn’t there, her body wouldn’t have been there, and she could have accidentally leaped into serious injury or worse.

Biles could have gritted it out, sure, but she would have placed herself in danger and probably tumbled her team right out of a medal. The easy thing would have been to keep competing. She took the hard, humiliating route, even though she knew she could pay dearly for it.

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Don’t forget, Biles walked a rocky path just to compete here. She didn’t need these Olympics, especially after they were postponed for a year, and particularly after she revealed she was among hundreds of women sexually abused by former national team doctor Larry Nassar.

Olympic athletes have relied on unique workouts and sports psychologists to overcome the shutdown robbing them of a chance to hone their competitive edge.

She came to Tokyo to celebrate resilience and inspire survivors. But because of that, she also came to Tokyo hauling the biggest of burdens.

Before the Games, reporters asked her about the happiest moment of her career and she answered, “Honestly, probably my time off.”

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Then, recently on Instagram, she wrote, “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”

That weight finally crushed her indomitable 4-foot-8, 104-pound frame, and maybe she’ll come back for the individual competitions, and maybe she won’t, but she shouldn’t need to prove her strength to anybody.

Still, there were more critics who wondered why Biles couldn’t show the toughness of Kerri Strug, the 1996 Olympic gymnast who vaulted on an injured ankle and led the U.S. team to a gold medal.

Fact: Strug might not have taken that second vault and risked further ankle injury if it weren’t for the prodding of infamous coach Bela Karolyi, who was later criticized for being verbally and psychologically abusive. Strug is one of this country’s great Olympic heroes, but it could have come at a great personal cost.

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Another fact: Among those tweeting support of Biles on Tuesday was a notable figure from that 1996 team, speaking for the large part of this nation that hopefully can drown out the naysayers.

Yeah, this came from Kerri Strug herself.

“Sending love to you @simonebiles.”


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