After an ill-executed vault on Tuesday, America’s superstar gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympics, citing mental-health issues. Quite right too, says Lindsay Crouse in The New York Times. “Being the greatest means knowing your own variable limits and when to push through the pain – and when not to force it.” Take Kerri Strug, the teenage gymnast who competed on a torn ankle to help the Americans win gold in 1996. She was held up as a hero, but aggravated the injury in the process, never competing again.
Biles, too, has endured plenty of struggles. She won a national title with broken toes and a gold medal at the 2018 world championships with kidney stones, and she was one of 150 gymnasts sexually assaulted by the US team’s doctor, Larry Nassar. She wasn’t shirking her career by pulling out this week, but rather “investing in her longevity”.
We might adopt them as “figureheads”, but athletes like Biles don’t owe us anything, says Lauren Puckett-Pope in Elle. “They can control their own stories, their own destinies.” The “fever pitch” of pressure on Biles recalls tennis player Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open earlier this year. But it ignores the fact that these athletes are “living women with interior lives so rich, we would weep if we knew them”.
“Get a grip, my God,” says Ben Sixsmith in The Spectator. Biles was well within her rights to pull out – God knows, she’s tougher than the average opinion columnist – but why the hell are we celebrating it? Commentators are babbling that her withdrawal might be her “greatest achievement of all”, but that just demeans her 31 world and Olympic medals. The only people turning her into a figurehead are the liberal media: Biles and Osaka have been drafted in to represent “black girl magic” and are fetishised as “martyrs” to “modish clichés about pressure and self-care”.
One writer even cites EM Forster: “I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” But no one’s accusing Biles of betraying her country – bar Piers Morgan, she’s had “almost universal” support. Besides, “the sensible response to such an allegation would be ‘no, she didn’t’ rather than ‘yes – and it was good’”.
🏅 😭 😃 The Biles saga is only the latest twist in the agony and ecstasy of the Olympic experience, says Matthew Syed in The Times. The one informs the other, as CS Lewis wrote in his great book The Problem of Pain. After diver Tom Daley failed to reach the 10-metre platform final at the Rio Games in 2016, his husband, Dustin Lance Black, told him: “This feels like a tragedy now, but this is part of a story unfolding.” Five long years later, the 27-year-old Daley triumphed in the 10-metre platform synchro with Matty Lee. Without the pain of Rio, his tears of euphoria wouldn’t have been quite so sweet. It’s the yin and yang of the Olympics: “I am drinking it up and hope you are too.”
A flying start for Britain
Far from being the Ghost Games, Tokyo 2020 has become “the feelgood event of the year”, says Henry Deedes in the Daily Mail. Team GB has enjoyed its best start ever to an Olympics: it’s now in sixth spot on the medals table, with six golds, nine silvers and nine bronzes. And the athletes have done it in style: Adam Peaty, the human torpedo, “destroying his opponents” in the 100-metre breaststroke; Tom Pidcock getting back on his bike six days after breaking his collarbone in May, then pedalling to mountain-biking gold; Tom Dean surging to swimming golds after being so ill with Covid in January that “he could barely climb stairs”.