Simone Biles is redefining the meaning of true strength in sport

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Simone Biles (Martin Rickett/PA) (PA Wire)
Simone Biles (Martin Rickett/PA) (PA Wire)

When Simone Biles returns to the balance beam this morning, she won’t be giving in to trolls or succumbing to the pressure to compete, as some people on the Twittersphere have so kindly put it. Really, she shouldn’t even be seen as making some kind of comeback. After the level of scrutiny and criticism she’s faced this week, her decision to compete in her last chance at an Olympic medal in Tokyo should really be regarded as her bravest move yet.

Last week, the decorated US gymnast dominated global headlines after choosing to step down from the Olympic team final following a stumble on the vault, citing the so-called “twisties”, which is when gymnasts lose track of where they are in the air during a jump. She later pulled out of a number of individual competitions to protect her mental health, in an echo of tennis star Naomi Osaka who chose to skip press conferences to protect her mental health earlier this summer. Both women explained themselves eloquently in public statements, not that they needed to. And both women, unsurprisingly, were taken down for it.

“What exactly is so courageous, heroic or inspiring about quitting on your team and country in an Olympics?” wrote provocateur-in-chief Piers Morgan, who walked out on his own teammates on Good Morning Britain earlier this year when one dared to challenge his views. ​​“Simone Biles just showed the rest of the nation that when things get tough, you shatter into a million pieces,” wrote conservative US commentator Charlie Kirk, adding: “We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles.”

Not only are Kirk’s comments ignorant and damaging, but they also entirely miss the point. I can’t think of anything stronger than standing up and saying ‘I am not OK’ on the world’s stage, after a lifetime dedicated to her sport and five years preparing for a few precious Olympic moments in Tokyo. Biles will have known what she’d be up against - just look at the abuse received by Osaka when she made a similar move back in June. Yet she did it anyway. Why? To put her own needs first, for a change.

 (AP)
(AP)

As someone who’s dedicated her life to winning Olympic and World Championship medals (30 by the age of 24, to be precise) for her country, surely that’s the very least she is owed - and that’s before you account for the fact she’s competing for an organisation that protected her predators instead of her when it was revealed she’d been molested by paedophile doctor Larry Nassar throughout her childhood.

“That girl has endured more trauma by the age of 24 than most people will ever go through in a lifetime,” wrote gymnastics coach, Andrea Orris following Biles’ decision. To have that level of strength and self-awareness at the age of 24 is, surely, something to be celebrated, not criticised. As is having the strength to return to the Olympic stage after all the abuse she’s received.

To those still questioning Biles’ withdrawal, I ask you this: would you have been so quick to criticise had she quit for a knee injury? If the response to Biles and Osaka’s decisions proves anything, it’s that we still have a long way to go before mental and physical health are given equal weightings inside and outside of sport.

Morgan and Kirk might feel uncomfortable acknowledging it, but we are far from raising a generation of “weak people”, as they put it. Rather, we are raising a generation who can look up and see their athletes not just as heroes, but as real people with real emotions, just like theirs. What could be more inspiring?

Biles might not have won a medal at this Olympics (yet). But her appearance at Tokyo may well make a far bigger impact on sport and wider society than any gold badge around her neck. For her (true) fans, putting her own needs first might actually be the greatest gift she could have given them after all.

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