Simone Biles is, without question, the greatest gymnast of all time. Not the greatest woman gymnast, not the greatest right now, but definitively the best human being to compete in this sport since the heyday of Nadia Comaneci. When Biles one day retires, the athletes who follow in her footsteps will be winning competitions with moves named after her, and operating under a scoring system that was challenged by Biles’s ability to pull off the most difficult stunts possible. This is part of why Biles is so beloved: She looks at a skill people have deemed impossible and then she lands it. If you ask her why she attempted it in the first place she’ll simply respond, “Because I can.”
In withdrawing from the team finals and the all-around individual finals at the Olympics, Biles is once again doing the incredibly hard thing, but this time the response isn’t all adoration and cheers. Despite making the decision for the sake of not just her mental health but her physical health as well, her legacy, sportsmanship, and mental fortitude are being called into question—all because she decided to take a break after years of stacking gold. It would be unbearably sad if it weren’t so common: It has become almost routine to see women athletes destroyed by the same reporters and athletic organizations that chose to deify them.
My favorite thing about large-scale competitions like the Olympics or the World Cup is that every few years, America comes together for a few weeks to pretend, en masse, that women athletes are valued as highly as their men counterparts in this country. Out of nowhere, folks who can’t be bothered to stream a National Women’s Soccer League game, a gymnastics meet, or a swimming competition become experts in all the ways a woman can fail in any of these sports. Women like Biles, Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, and the members of USA’s soccer and basketball teams are suddenly at the center of the sports universe for one reason and one reason only: America does not lose.
When it comes to flashy sports—basketball, soccer, swimming, gymnastics— American Olympians are sent off not just to compete, but to win gold. Silver and bronze are only acceptable if you lose to a fellow American, like the gold and silver combo Biles and Aly Raisman won in Rio. But otherwise, if it isn’t gold, then it’s essentially a loss (which is exactly how Ledecky’s silver medal was framed by the New York Times).
Every athlete strives for gold. But for women representing America, a gold medal is more a necessity than it is a desire. For Biles, a young Black woman who has been effusively praised by the press, anything less than gold has prompted a heel-turn by the media that celebrated her. Since announcing her withdrawal from team finals in Tokyo, she has been cast as a villain and torn apart by racially biased pundits. The same people who couldn’t stomach a Black woman being the best are now disparaging her for refusing to perform. Their implicit suggestion is that Biles’s withdrawal is a moral failure, because self-sacrifice for Team USA is requisite—athletes should break themselves for the honor of competing.
Part of the reason the cost of losing at the Olympics is so much higher for women is that they’re not merely trying to prove they’re the best; they’re trying to prove to their governing bodies back home that they are worth the investment. These women shoulder the responsibility of keeping their sports alive in a country that constantly devalues them. For women’s soccer, for example, a gold medal is an accolade as well as a formidable piece of evidence in the ongoing fight for equal pay.
This pressure pushes women athletes beyond their limits. Take the great Kerri Strug, who famously competed at the 1996 Olympics after injuring her ankle on her first vault attempt then landed it, on one leg, on the second. Some have suggested that, like Strug, Biles simply needed to muscle through whatever was happening and perform her routine. But if you pause for a moment and watch the footage of Strug after she finished her vault you’ll notice she’s being helped off the mat by her coach, Bela Károlyi, who is accused of psychologically abusing the women he trained, and by the team’s doctor at the time, Larry Nassar, who is serving time for sexually abusing more than 150 young women and girls. Strug did not endure her abuse in silence just so that the women who came after her could be forced to do the same.
Gymnasts don’t get to have off days. If they’re not fully present and focused for even a moment in their routines they could do irreparable damage to their bodies and when they’re broken what does their sport do for them? It pushes them to the side and puts their leotard on the next girl in the rotation. Conventional wisdom says that a single wrong move can end a gymnast’s career or, even worse, their life.
Biles should not be judged or ridiculed for refusing to be eaten alive by her sport. She made an unimaginably difficult decision when she chose to put her mental and physical well-being over a gold medal. But as much as her critics may want to convince her otherwise, she doesn’t need another medal to prove herself; her achievements are already written in stone.