Perhaps it’s only natural in today’s polarized world to witness a gymnast who decided to stop competing igniting massive controversy across the political spectrum. Though, to be fair, the gymnast happens to be Simone Biles, one of the greatest in the history of the sport, and the competition she decided to quit was the Olympics.
On one side of the debate are her defenders, who argue that she showed great courage in stepping down and working on her “mindfulness.” Like the tennis champion Naomi Osaka quitting the French Open for vague mental health reasons, Biles’ quitting highlighted the great need for high-profile athletes to sometimes take a step back and adopt mentally healthy habits.
Some have gone so far as to equate her action to Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus. As Candace Buckner writes in The Washington Post, “A different kind of pressure follows Black women who achieve in traditionally White spaces. If they’ve had a realist for a mother, since childhood they’ve heard the refrain they’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as much. And if they spent two seconds in America, then they know that mama was right.”
On the other side are those who claim that she is a self-absorbed loser who let everyone down and sought out easy sympathy for playing the victim. They nostalgically recall the great moments of American athletes persevering through adversity and selflessly bringing glory to their country, and then they contrast this with the self-centered quitting of Biles—the title of Kylee Zempell’s article in The Federalist says it all: “There’s No ‘I’ In Team, But There Is In Simon Biles.”
Again, some even go further in this direction, seeing Biles’ refusal to compete as downright pathological. The popular young conservative writer and activist Charlie Kirk showed no patience for Biles’ excuses: “You’re representing your nation you selfish sociopath. Are you kidding me?”
Sensing extremes on both sides, most people familiar with the issue lie in the middle, neither ready to praise or condemn Biles’ quitting. It’s unfortunate, but she probably had her reasons. It also helps that her team still earned silver and that fellow teammate Suni Lee won gold in the all-around individual competition.
However, along with the other two positions, even this middle position fails to capture the strangeness of the situation. If her statements are any indication, Biles was not taking any kind of principled stand toward social injustice or athletic exploitation. She was not like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, holding fast to his commitment to honor the Sabbath even at the cost of winning a gold medal at the Olympics. Nor was she fending off an imminent mental breakdown, like the one that strikes pianist David Helfgott in the movie Shine as he performs the “Third Piano Concerto” by Rachmaninoff.
Rather, to make yet another Oscar film reference, Biles’ decision and following explanation resembled Forest Gump’s decision to stop running across the country. The usual drama one would expect from a person like Biles explaining why she pulled out just wasn’t there. Sure, there were a few tears in various interviews, but she didn’t seem proud or ashamed; she mostly seemed nonchalant.
Listening to her statements, she probably felt an intense bout of boredom and apathy. It is telling that Biles complains that she stopped having fun at the Olympics: “I feel like I’m also not having as much fun, and I know that this Olympic Games I wanted to do it for myself, and I was still doing it for other people, so that just hurts my heart badly, that doing what I love has been taken away.” She breaks into tears as she says this.
In this context, “fun” can be fairly translated as “meaningful,” which would help explain why competing “hurts [her] heart so badly.” She ceased to see meaning, joy, or fulfillment in competing for her country and being a role model. So much of it suddenly seemed pointless and even dehumanizing. Indeed, it seems more likely that she suffered an existential crisis more than frayed nerves, though the two are connected.
In this way, Biles becomes emblematic of Generation Z, today’s teenagers and those in their early 20s, who struggle enormously with their identities and finding meaning in anything. Adrift in cyberspace, they feel disconnected from others and themselves. They are lonely, and nothing much seems real. And this feeling eventually catches up with them.
Jeremy Adams, a teacher and writer, explains this problem in depth in his upcoming book Hollowed Out: “In the past, our inner possibilities were cultivated by our outer expectations—the expectations that we would be godly, familial, patriotic, hardworking, self-improving, attempting a life of virtue. That is no longer the case. That nurturing culture has broken down into post-modern radical individualism.” Not only does this kind of culture kill ambition in a person, it also denies satisfaction to those who actually achieve something substantial. It’s enough to make a champion feel like a chump.
One would hope that Biles’ Catholic faith could give her the motivation to glorify God and country in her amazing ability and strength, as it did when she started competing. But the 2021 Olympics are not the same as the 1924 Olympics of Eric Liddell. These Olympics have been sterilized, commercialized, and emptied of all celebration. Even if the hosts and participants use COVID-19 as an excuse for the overall dreariness of these games, today’s postmodern culture easily played a bigger role in creating this lame spectacle.
As such, just as many people simply didn’t feel like watching the Olympics, Simone Biles simply didn’t feel like competing in them. This doesn’t make her a hero or a villain; it just makes her a typical young woman coping with today’s meaning-free world. It’s clear that many people desperately wanted to look up to her, but it also seems clear that she has no one who inspires the same wonder. Hopefully, she can move past this moment and find joy again, particularly the lasting joy one finds in the Gospels—and, in doing so, inspire the rest of the world to do the same.
[Photo Credit: LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images]