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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

How Simone Biles achieved greatness despite rejecting the roadmap

If sport thrives in the hope of millions aspiring to be like a few, Biles was imploring us to remember she is human

Written by Ishita Sengupta |
August 9, 2021 8:39:47 pm
Simone Biles of the United States in action on the vault. (REUTERS photo)

Sport, unlike life, offers a roadmap to greatness. The idea behind pitting someone against another is not to arrive at a resolution but to witness mortals striving for immortality. Obstacles are created and rules are designed to spotlight the ordinary transcending into the extraordinary, to observe a pair of feet, trained to walk, taking flight. The joy of watching sports is rooted in the conviction of an alternate world, where fairness is a rule, physical and mental tenacities are malleable and superheroes run without a cape. Greatness is visible yet inaccessible and vulnerability is the stepping stone to invincibility. The allure resides in the distance it creates from life; the merit of perfection measured by how acutely it reminds us of our frailties.

At the ongoing Olympics, US athlete Simone Biles disrupted history by withdrawing from the all-around competition and the team final, though the most decorated gymnast in the world later won a bronze at the balance beam competition. “We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day we’re human, too…So, we have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,” the 24-year-old said.

If sport thrives in the hope of millions aspiring to be like a few, Biles was imploring us to remember she is human.

For a year and a half, the world has been ravaged by a pandemic, altering ways of living. Sports, whose existence depends on being distinctive from life, persisted by resisting. When the Indian Premier League (IPL) took place in the UAE in 2020, efforts were made to create an impression of a parallel world. Prolonged quarantines were mandated, footage of fans cheering from the safety of their houses were used to underline that the game was indomitable.

Life infiltrated soon. People on social media spent days dissecting the extra weight some players put on, the sluggish pace with which they moved. The criticism was veiled consternation on finding their heroes on equal footing.

At the outset, the Olympics deployed a similar mirage. Naomi Osaka lighting the cauldron in Tokyo signalled the surge of a new era. The vivid commitment of the moment made the 23-year-old’s decision to sit out the French Open this year distant, her concerns over mental health peripheral. At long last, the certainty of sports was ready to override the precarity of life.

In 2016 at Rio de Janeiro, Biles–19 then–had snagged four gold medals, cementing her status as one of the greatest living athletes. Standing in 2021, she chose the same platform to rewrite her story. At any other time, her reminder of being one of us would have sounded condescending, her choice of withdrawing, unprofessional. But the world has changed. The present crisis has revealed vulnerability as a human condition, resetting the line dividing mortals and the sporting gods forever.

Biles’ plea, however, was not an excuse. It was a statement. By refraining from doing “what the world wants us to do” she acknowledged the reality beyond the confines of the court—far too many people have died and the incessant stream of grief has transfigured the rest into bottomless reservoirs. The moral parameters of sports have morphed into mortal implications of life. Winning and losing have become a language of living. By drawing attention to the fact that she is human too, the gymnast highlighted the struggle of survival we all have been afflicted with and the resolve needed for existing, now that living has become a full-time sport. Sitting at the stand cheering for others, Biles humanised the competition and mythologised us. She achieved greatness despite rejecting the roadmap.

After withdrawing from all individual events save one, she was seen on the balancing beam. Her performance earned a bronze but it needed no validation As the crowd erupted in the arena, it was evident that the routine was something else. It felt different, it represented something more. Had she won the gold, Biles would have been one of the greatest athletes of all time. But by winning the bronze she uncovered the singularity of our times.

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