I have never felt the weight of global expectation on my shoulders.
That’s how gymnast Simone Biles, acclaimed as the greatest of all time, tried to explain the burden she carried into the Tokyo Olympics this week.
On Tuesday, it became too much, and she dropped out of the team competition. On Wednesday, she withdrew from individual event competitions.
“I know that I'm not having as much fun," Biles said, her voice breaking, as the Star Tribune’s Rachel Blount reported. … “I have to do what's right for me and focus on my mental health."
Now, people who had watched, transfixed, as this young woman powered and floated and tumbled through routines that were beyond anyone else’s capabilities – they either put their arms around her or they scoffed. Not having fun? Hey, it’s her job, the doubters sneer. She sought the spotlight. She’s enjoying all the benefits of stardom. Tough it out!
Count me in the other camp.
We have been learning, we who watch and cheer, that athletic greatness may come with a price quite beyond the endless hours of practice, the discipline it takes to sculpt and tune that body and – here it is – steel and synchronize body with that ever-focused mind. We saw it with tennis star Naomi Osaka. If we really were watching and listening, we saw it with other elite athletes earlier. Remember Roger Maris, his hair falling out as he chased Babe Ruth’s home run record 60 years ago?
I never was much of an athlete. A high school gym coach, preparing to time me in a 600-yard run, put away his stop-watch and picked up a calendar. My former high school golf coach, phoning in scores to the newspaper sports desk where I was working and taking calls, took a moment to respond when I told him I had quit playing golf. Then: “Thank God!”
So, while I have known and struggled with pressures of another sort, I can’t begin to understand the pain, the self-doubt, the fear – whatever a star athlete may go through when the bell sounds and the whole world watches as if they are owed perfection.
Michael Phelps understands. The greatest male swimmer of all time told NBC following Biles’ withdrawal that the pressure is “overwhelming,” and “pressure comes from absolutely everywhere, and everybody deals with it differently.”
He said he thrived on the pressure when he competed, but years before he left the world stage he began to understand the importance of attending to his mental health as well as the physical demands of his sport. You need someone in your camp who knows, he said, someone who is nonjudgmental and listens.
“There’s a lot we can do to help one another,” he said.
As the admiring grandfather of a young gymnast whose ability to leap, tumble, dance, vault, twist and flip has grown year by year, I admire most the joy, dedication and self-awareness she brings to the sport. The medals and moments on winner stands are nice, but it’s the eagerness to work through three-hour practices, testing what she can do, her mind and body working together, that so impresses me. I’ve been impressed, and a little envious, since I saw her do her first cartwheel many years ago.
I have admired the same qualities in Simone Biles: an honest, engaging smile, and the way she has carried herself. I hope people close to her are listening to her, without judgment, and that she can find the joy again.
Since we’re on the Olympics:
I am proud of the Norwegian women’s beach handball team, whose members donned shorts instead of the required bikini briefs in a recent pre-Olympics tournament. The team was fined more than $1,700.
“Where is the dividing line,” columnist Sally Jenkins wrote this week in the Washington Post, “between athletic glorification and sexualization?”
Official dress codes written primarily by old men clearly lean to the latter, she says. For women’s beach volleyball, the approved outfit “fits tight to the body,” while men wear tank tops and shorts. In women’s gymnastics, the international code specifies that the leg length of athletes’ leotards “cannot exceed the horizontal line around the leg, delineated by no more than 2 (centimeters) below the base of the buttocks.”
Biles has said she appreciates how the leotard makes her legs appear longer, and I imagine other women gymnasts like the look as well. Fine. That’s their call. But if elite athletes object to uniform styles and standards that they believe sexualize them, authorities need to listen – just as they needed to listen when Biles and other young gymnasts began to tell about a sexually abusive team doctor, and just as they need to listen now when athletes we thought were super-human, invincible, talk about vulnerability and mental health.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at email@example.com.