Simon Biles’s Critics Miss the Bigger Story of Bodily Abuse

Written by on July 30, 2021

The Olympics always hold surprises, and this first week of competition in Tokyo was no exception. On Tuesday, Simone Biles, captain of the USA Olympic Women’s Gymnastics team and the most decorated American gymnast of all time, withdrew from the team competition after uncharacteristic performances on both the vault and floor.

By Wednesday, Biles had stepped away from the individual all-round competition as well, citing the need to give attention to her mental wellbeing. With an almost guaranteed chance of dominating the games, Biles’s choice models something rare in both competitive sports and broader culture: the humility and courage to say, “Enough is enough.”

Although many supported Biles’s decision, others saw her choice as a failure. Conservative media voices like Charlie Kirk, Matt Walsh, and Jenna Ellis deemed her a quitter, equating her focus on “mental health” with a softness or lack of emotional fortitude. They went so far as to accuse her of failing her team and even her country. Others recalled Kerri Strug’s gritty 1996 vault, in which Strug pushed through obvious injury for a second attempt and ultimately led her team to gold.

After all, isn’t the whole point of competitive sports to push the human body to its limits—or past what we believe its limits to be? Even the apostle Paul invokes the metaphor of subjecting the body to rigorous discipline, writing in 1 Corinthians 9 that “everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. … I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (vv. 25–27).

Although we are called to discipline our physical (and also spiritual) selves, pushing the human body to its limits doesn’t mean that limits don’t exist. We’re required to have both the wisdom and humility to respect our limitations.

But you wouldn’t know this if you were taking your cues from the broader culture of the USA Gymnastics organization (USAG). For decades, the USAG has willfully denied such limits, opting instead to treat athletes as disposable by starving and pushing young bodies to a breaking point, then tossing them aside when they’re of no more use to the team objective.

Indeed, it was within such an abusive culture that Strug achieved her now-famous second vault. It was in this same culture that USAG coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi ran their notorious “ranch”—an official training facility closed in the wake of abuse allegations. It was this same culture that handed off vulnerable, hurting gymnasts to team physician and pedophile Larry Nassar. It was this same culture that covered up Nassar’s abuse, allowing him to continue to assault hundreds of other young gymnasts, including Biles herself.

It’s taken decades, but Biles’s willingness and ability to say no to that culture represents a sea change. As former Olympian and Strug teammate Dominique Moceanu tweeted, “[Biles’s] decision demonstrates that we have a say in our own health—‘a say’ I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian.”

In the same Olympic games that garnered Strug a place in history, 14-year-old Moceanu hit her head on the balance beam and fell. Rather than get immediately evaluated by a physician, she continued on in competition. Meanwhile, Strug’s own injury on the vault would end her gymnastics career at the age of 18.

Such stories stand in stark contrast to that of Oksana Chusovitina, the Uzbek gymnast who was celebrated this week for the longevity of her career. Chusovitina finally retired at the age of 46, after competing in an astounding eight Olympics. She began in 1992—five years before Biles was born. And while commentators may chalk her longevity up to her love and commitment to gymnastics, I wonder if the answer is much simpler. Perhaps gymnasts would enjoy longer careers if they weren’t abused to the point where they could no longer compete.

That, I would argue, is what Biles’s critics are missing. Soon after her withdrawal, the reality of her story became clearer, and that story is much darker than her detractors suggest.

In citing the need to focus on her “mental wellbeing,” Biles mentioned that she was experiencing “a bit of the twisties,” meaning a breakdown in the mind-body connection essential to performing complicated skills. The “twisties,” or aerial disorientation, causes an athlete to lose a sense of her position in the air and can lead to severe injury. It’s also a phenomenon that can be brought on by extreme stress and trauma—the kind Biles herself has endured.

“The trouble with the phrase ‘mental health’ is that it’s an abstraction that allows you to sail right straight over what happened to Simone Biles and, in a way, what is still happening to her,” writesWashington Post columnist Sally Jenkins. “To this day, American Olympic officials continue to betray her. They deny that they had a legal duty to protect her and others from rapist-child pornographer Larry Nassar, and they continue to evade accountability in judicial maneuvering. Abuse is a current event for her.”

Call it what it is: Simon Biles is an athlete competing under the combined effects of mental, emotional, sexual, and physical trauma. That her mind-body connection chose this moment to misfire should not surprise anyone.

But consummate athlete and mature woman that she is, Biles also understands the danger that a disoriented mind poses. Instead of pushing through, she had the courage to reject a culture that would win at any cost and say, “No more.”

What’s damning is how many of us mistook her humility and courage for humiliation, self-serving preservation, or idolatry of personal well-being. None of us can know Biles’ motives. We often don’t even understand our own fully. But what we can observe is how she responded to human limitations in a culture that regularly abused them. When we face similar dilemmas—whether in our jobs, ministries, or relationships—we too might have the humility to embrace our own human fragility and the courage to speak truthfully about it.

Christ’s incarnation gives us a model for how to honor the very bodies that we so often d

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