Simone Biles Doesn't Owe You A Performance––She Doesn't Owe Anyone Anything

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
American gymnast Simone Biles in a white outfit with blue sleeves
Scary Mommy and Laurence Griffiths/Getty

Simone Biles has become the face of USA gymnastics in a way no gymnast has since maybe Mary Lou Retton in the 70s. Yes, there have been other famous gymnasts since the 70s, but none have made quite the same impact as Biles. She took the world by storm during the 2016 Rio Olympics, and has been in the spotlight ever since. Of course she has. She literally defies gravity with some of her routines. Her level of fame and skill makes her almost superhuman, which is why her decision to pull out of the Olympic team competition to take care of her mental health comes as shock to many. Some people are feeling outrage by her decision, but here’s the thing: Simone Biles doesn’t owe anyone her athleticism. She’s allowed to protect herself.

Since the qualifiers for the Olympic team, Simone Biles has been performing below her usual high levels. It has to be difficult to perform at your top when you’re worried about catching Covid. Yes, I’m sure she’s vaccinated, but that’s not the point. Additionally, she’s trying to perform to the best of her massive abilities, and people just don’t want her to be great. Simone Biles can perform moves that no one can, including male gymnasts. Because of this, it has been made clear that people are jealous of her skills, feel inferior, and will do whatever they can to lowball her.

The moves Biles performs have a higher difficulty score than that of any of her competition. And she noticed that because of this, she is being scored unfairly to try and even the playing field.

“They don’t want the field to be too far apart. And that’s just something that’s on them. That’s not on me,” she told The New York Times in May.

Can you imagine the kind of mental toll that must take? I can’t imagine having to perform these difficult moves on the world’s largest stage, knowing that my skill is undervalued because other people just aren’t as good as I am. Why should she have to dull her shine to make less skilled gymnasts feel better about their own abilities? Obviously we don’t know exactly what is causing her need to take a mental health break, but it’s fair to say this must be playing a huge part of it. But there are other heavy things.

Back in April, Simone Biles did an interview with Hoda Kotb explaining that part of her reason for sticking with gymnastics has nothing to do with her love of the sport. She was continuing to compete so that USA Gymnastics sticks to their word when it comes to investigating sexual abuse of team members at the hands of former team doctor Larry Nassar.

“If there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport they would’ve just brushed it to the side,” she said.

Of the women who reported abuse at the hands of Nassar, Biles is the only one who is still actively competing in the sport. After the initial case in 2018, the conversation has faded largely into the background publicly. And based on her commitment to keep the heat on USA Gymnastics, it has likely cooled in the gymnastics world as well. Even though no one is asking her to continue competing for the sake of keeping the conversation going, it’s clear that she feels a sense of duty to do so.

“I think they’re just gonna try to hide it, sweep it under the rug and hopefully people kind of forgive and forget. Because if it’s not talked about, then they’re like, ‘OK, we can move on,’ ” she told USA Today Sports. “Stuff doesn’t just blow over.”

Black women often have a sense of duty to the systems that hurt them. We are treated poorly every day, by our places of employment, co-workers, and of course by this country. The way people are tearing Simone Biles down right now is a prime example of this. And what for? Because she pulled out of a competition she didn’t need to compete in in the first place? Okay, Chad on Twitter. I’d like to see you flip your lazy ass across the floor the way she does and then tell me that it’s fucking easy.

Simone Biles, gold medal or not, is a fucking hero. Because she realized that she had limits. Not only that, but she put her foot down and drew a boundary. Based on the reactions we’re seeing, there are many people who think she should not be allowed to do that. Athletes are expected to just compete and shut up. No one cares about them as people, nor their bodily autonomy — only about what their bodies can do in an arena. This is even truer for Black athletes. They’re not allowed to be human; they’re just supposed to shut up and play, so we can enjoy the performance. Whether or not people want to admit it, the backlash against Biles is way more extreme because she’s a Black woman. See the aforementioned disrespect by pretty much everyone for insight as to why I’ve drawn that conclusion.

But that’s the thing. People don’t want to see athletes advocating for themselves. Because that makes them human, which somehow ruins the facade of romanticized sports. Society, more specifically in American society, has this “keep pushing” mentality. You’re never supposed to stop moving, you’ll “sleep when you’re dead.” By these standards, athletes should be pushing themselves to the brink because that means they’ve earned whatever recognition they get. It’s in line with the hustle and grind mentality of American capitalism.

Because she pulled out after a disappointing vault, commenters are drawing comparison to another famous Olympic vault: Kerri Strug’s 1996 gold medal clinching vault where she broke her ankle. Of course, people are trying to use Kerri’s moment to tear Simone down, calling Biles a “quitter” and worse because Strug was competing injured. First of all, why are we using one instance to tear another down? Kerri Strug isn’t any more of a hero than Simone Biles because she competed injured. Simone Biles, who wasn’t even born when Kerri Strug’s iconic moment happened, had the foresight to avoid a similar fate or worse. Let’s not try to normalize competing while injured, please. Even though Simone (and countless other athletes) have done the same.

I don’t think people truly understand just how dangerous gymnastics is. Even after living through watching Kerri Strug fuck up her ankle, people still think that shit is easy! Simone Biles is the greatest gymnast of all time for a reason, and that’s because she does the most complex moves of anyone else in the sport. If she falters or hesitates even a little bit, she could be injured far beyond a broken bone. She. Could. Be. Dead. That is not an exaggeration by any means. If she messes up a landing, she could land on her neck. She has to be in the strongest mental state humanly possible to hit her marks. We fail to remember that when it comes to sports, mental strength is just as important as physical strength, if not more.

The Olympics isn’t over, and Simone Biles may still compete in the individual apparatus competitions. But if she doesn’t, that’s her choice. Because only she knows what the right thing is for herself. It’s easy for us to sit here and add commentary about what we would do in her position. But the truth is, none of us know what we would do. Because we’re never going to be Simone Biles. So let’s just STFU and let her do what she’s gonna do. No matter what, she forever will be the GOAT.