Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the women’s gymnastics team event and the individual all-around final at the Tokyo Olympics seems to have divided America along the conservative-liberal lines. The four-time Olympic gold medalist pulled out to look after her mental health and support has poured in from different quarters. But there were also those who criticised her move.
There’s an uncanny similarity in the nature of criticism. Charlie Kirk, an American conservative activist and also the founder of Turning Point USA, has called the gymnast a “selfish sociopath” and “a shame to this country”.
“We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles,” Kirk said on his podcast, adding: “Simone Biles just showed the rest of the nation that when things get tough, you shatter into a million pieces.”
Writing for The Federalist, a conservative online magazine, their political editor John Davidson aimed a thinly veiled dig at Biles, suggesting that she should be ashamed of her withdrawal. “Biles doesn’t suffer from a specific mental illness, at least not that we know of or that’s ever manifested itself before,” Davidson wrote.
“What she experienced wasn’t that, it was something more common among professional athletes: she got psyched out. She wasn’t mentally tough when she needed to be,” he went on. “Instead of being ashamed of that, or apologising to her teammates and her countrymen, Biles seemed to revel in taking care of her ‘mental health’, whatever that means.”
Reaction from the mainstream US media has been overwhelmingly positive. The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today lauded Biles for showing courage and putting her mental health first.
“I’m very proud of Simone, and I can’t imagine the bravery that it takes to just say, ‘I’m not going to do it today’,” three-time Olympic gold medalist and Biles’ former team-mate Aly Raisman told ESPN.
On NBC’s primetime broadcast, legendary swimmer Michael Phelps threw his weight behind Biles, hoping that this would be “an eye-opening experience”.
Biles is a rags-to-riches story, a black sportsperson in a country which is still going through an evolution in terms of racial and gender equality. She is also a survivor of abuse, as was part of the group that had the disgraced ex-US Team doctor Larry Nassar. The latter was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for crime related to his sexual abuse of underage gymnasts. Biles, on the other hand, is one of the stars, believed to have become the face of the liberals who allege racial bias in all walks of life.
Biles’ reproval has come chiefly from right-aligned commentators and outlets. On his Fox Sports radio show, Doug Gottlieb has questioned the gymnast’s ability to handle criticism. “Generally, we don’t have any sort of critique for our female sports teams. On one hand you want to be viewed, treated, and compensated the same as the men, but on the other hand, whatever you do, just don’t be critical of us,” he said, as quoted by The Guardian.
On another Fox show, Clay Travis opined that Biles should apologise to her team-mates, as her pull-out “represents a fundamental breach of the most important aspect of team sports”.
Biles has been outspoken in her disapproval of former US President Donald Trump and also strongly supported the Black Lives Matter movement. After the Olympics pull-out, she, however, has found backing from Republican Senator Mitt Romney. “I love and admire Simone Biles and our Olympians. Beyond their determination and sacrifice, they evidence the greatness of the human spirit, in victory and in defeat. I take pride in them, not so much for the medals they win as for the grace, humanity & character of their hearts,” Romney tweeted.
Former US First Lady Michelle Obama tagged Biles in a tweet and posted: “Am I good enough? Yes, I am. The mantra I practice daily. @Simone_Biles, we are proud of you and we are rooting for you. Congratulations on the the silver medal, Team @USA!”
She has spoken about how the “outpouring of love” has helped her look at things from a different perspective. “the outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.” Biles commented through a tweet on Thursday.