Simone Biles Is Redefining Greatness
And she doesn’t owe you shit.
Who gets to define greatness?
That's the question I've been fixated on in the aftermath of Simone Biles' decision to withdraw from the gymnastics team final competition at the Tokyo Olympics. She has since withdrawn from the individual all-around competition as well.
Her future in the sport is unclear. Biles herself has said that she's already considered retirement, but she ultimately decided to return to support her younger peers on Team USA. As the only survivor of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal who is still competing professionally, Biles revealed that she felt an obligation to protect and fight for her teammates.
"I had to come back to the sport to be a voice, to have change happen," she told Hoda Kotb in an interview in April. "Because I feel like if there weren't a remaining survivor in the sport, they would have just brushed it to the side. But since I'm still here, and I have quite a social media presence and platform, they have to do something. So I feel like coming back—gymnastics just wasn't the only purpose I was supposed to do."
There's quite a bit to unpack in that statement alone. The fact that 24-year-old Biles stepped into the role of advocate because she feared her absence would leave her teammates that much more vulnerable says a lot about USA Gymnastics and its shortcomings as a regulatory agency. We all know that USA Gymnastics' failure to act allowed the abuse perpetrated by Nassar to continue for decades, but it shouldn't be Biles' job to keep the organization in check.
And yet, she no doubt shouldered that responsibility for a reason. Has USA Gymnastics done enough to atone for its mistakes and, moreover, to ensure future generations of athletes are spared the trauma their predecessors were subjected to? Biles—who would certainly know better than anyone outside of the sport—doesn't seem to think so.
Her selflessness and maturity are as awe-inspiring as her performances on the mat. But too often, we underestimate the toll that altruism can take. Putting everything and everyone first means something's gotta give. And that usually ends up being yourself and your own well-being.
Biles' withdrawal, predictably, fueled her critics—who, for the record, have never even seen an Olympic medal up close, let alone been talented enough to earn six of them, as Biles has done. Some have had the audacity to suggest that Kerri Strug's infamous vault performance with a broken ankle at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta is a shining, aspirational example of what an athlete should be expected to do in a high-stress situation. Nevermind that Team USA could have still won gold without Strug's final vault attempt or that she was promptly handed off to Nassar afterwards, visibly in agonizing pain. What, exactly, is the point of success if it comes at the expense of your health?
"I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times," Biles wrote on her Instagram one day before announcing her decision to withdraw. "I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn't affect me but damn sometimes it's hard."
Few people will ever understand what it's like to have the title Greatest Of All Time thrust upon them. Biles is in a rare class of individuals who face an intense amount of scrutiny from complete strangers. Earlier this year, when tennis star Naomi Osaka bowed out of the French Open to focus on her mental health, she, too, opened up about the adverse effects of being in the spotlight and trying to perform when you're carrying the burden of everyone else's expectations.
"The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that," Osaka wrote in a message shared on her social media platforms. "Anyone that knows me knows I'm introverted, and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I'm often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety."
By refusing to simply do what's expected of them regardless of what it takes—or costs—both Biles and Osaka are redefining what it means to be great. Greatness doesn't always look like a gold medal and a photo opp from the podium. That's especially true considering everything that's happened in the last 16 months.
From the pandemic to the protests for racial justice to the ongoing climate crisis, there's no shortage of external stressors that are burning out everyone—not just elite athletes. Neither Biles, Osaka, nor anyone for that matter owes anyone else their pain and suffering in order to clinch some semblance of fleeting glory.
In truth, we could all use a mental reset. And we could all benefit from reassessing the ways in which we intertwine productivity with greatness. Perhaps being great isn't about collecting accolades and admiration. Maybe the key to true greatness is recognizing when your work here is done and that it's time to move on.