A Fitting Honor

TIME‘s Athlete of the Year, Simone Biles

This morning, TIME announced that Simone Biles has been selected as its Athlete of the Year. It did not take long at all for the backlash against the choice to begin, particularly amongst the so-called conservative online press. The Western Journal headed its social media post with “’How can TIME choose her over much more deserving athletes?” and linked to a piece by Jack Davis published just an hour after TIME’s announcement was made. And this is how he began his comments:

The old adage was that “winners never quit and quitters never win.”

But in 2021, quitters can be named Athlete of the Year.

This is a ridiculous and, frankly, stupid statement to make. It completely disregards Biles’ own statements made shortly after she withdrew from the team competition in Tokyo that she was experiencing “the twisties,” If you’re anything like me, you had no idea what that was exactly when you first heard it. If you follow the Olympics then you probably know now, but just in case, here is a definition provided in a July 28 Washington Post article by Emily Giambalvo—”the twisties”

describes a frightening predicament. When gymnasts have the “twisties,” they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.

The same article quotes Biles saying, “I had no idea where I was in the air. I could have hurt myself.”

Athletes are not machines that can perform on demand. I cannot imagine that anyone wanted her to dominate the Tokyo Olympics more than Simone Biles wanted it herself. The expectations were through the proverbial roof. I detest the term GOAT, but if there is one in the world of gymnastics, it is Simone Biles. As the commentators never tired of pointing out, Biles does skills that other gymnasts can only dream about doing; she has four skills named after her. That means that she performed those skills, previously unperformed by anyone else, at a major international competition. Prior to the Tokyo Olympics there was speculation that Biles might increase that number to five.

Biles has won 25 World medals in Olympics—19 of which were gold—and both of those numbers are the records for gymnastics. Biles was the first woman to win five World floor exercise titles, to win three World balance beam titles and to win five World all-around titles. Not the first to accomplish that combination, mind you, but the first to reach all three of those levels. She is a five-time U.S. floor exercise champion, five-time U.S. balance beam champion, six-time U.S. vault champion and seven-time U.S. all-around champion. She has seven Olympic medals, tying her with Shannon Miller for the most by an Olympic gymnast. This is not the resume of a quitter.

Why, then, such a negative reaction to TIME’s choice?

Well, back to Davis’s pitiful opinion piece, Biles withdrew from the team competition of the Olympics because “she was not sufficiently mentally focused on what she was doing and could have injured herself had she competed in her condition.” That’s a gross and, I dare say intentional, misrepresentation of the facts. While technically a true description of the twisties, the implication is clearly that Biles was slacking, not giving the competition the attention it demanded and her performance was suffering as a result.

Davis continued with, “Time [sic] explained that those old-fashioned views about athletes achieving excellence in their sports had nothing to do with its decision.” Again, the implication is that Biles has not achieved excellence. Might I direct you back two paragraphs for evidence of the absurdity of that suggestion. Was Biles the best athlete of 2021? Probably not. She certainly did not achieve the level of success expected of her in Tokyo. But it’s not like she was a slouch. She qualified for the Olympics, after all, and at the age of 24. Sixteen is considered to be the peak age for a gymnast. The Tokyo Olympics was the first time since 1968 that there were more non-teens than teens competing in gymnastics, and even in Tokyo the median age was 21 and the average age was 21 years 11 months. Even though every member of Team USA’s artistic gymnastics team in Tokyo was 18 or older for the first time since 1952, Biles was the oldest on the all-around team by three years. McKayla Skinner was on the USA squad as a specialist, and she is older than Biles by just over three months. The other specialist was Jade Carey, who was 21, and who ended up subbing for Biles in the all-around. But the other three original members of the team were 20 (Jordan Chiles) and 18 (Suni Lee and Grace McCallum). Biles returned to the Olympics for the individual balance beam competition and she took Bronze. The winners of Gold and Silver were Guan Chenchen (age 17) and Tang Xijing (age 18) respectively. So you’ll pardon me for calling the assertion that Biles did not achieve excellence nothing but hogwash.

Later, Davis wrote, “The article extolling her selection labeled those who believe dropping out of Olympic events partway through them is not the hallmark of a champion as ‘naysayers.’” Davis pointed this out derisively, but the statement is correct. Athletes cannot be demanded, or even expected, to be super-human. Many athletes—perhaps Simone Biles more than any—do things that the rest of us cannot even comprehend, much less imagine doing. But they are still mortal. They are still human. They still have bad days and struggles and doubts. And that does not even include the fact that doing Olympic-level gymnastics with the twisties is just plain dangerous.

Davis enjoyed pointing out that “many disputed Time’s selection.” Of course, none of the “many” that Davis quoted were gymnasts. As best I can tell, none of them is even an athlete. I am sure I am not the only one who thinks that Biles’ withdrawal from Olympic events—not her quitting—was not only justified but groundbreaking. Her teammate Suni Lee said, “What Simone did changed the way we view our well-being, 100%. It showed us that we are more than the sport, that we are human beings who also can have days that are hard. It really humanized us.” 1988 Olympian Missy Marlowe said the twisties is “like a nonserious stroke.” 1996 Olympian Dominique Moceanu, who was only 14 at the Atlanta Olympics, tweeted that Biles’ decision “demonstrates that we have a say in our own health—’a say’ I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian.” Dominique Dawes, who competed in three Olympics (1992, 1996, 2000) said that she quit during the 2000 prelims but was not allowed to do so. “[I]t was too much on me emotionally,” Dawes said. “However, I was not able to make that decision. It was very much a controlled atmosphere.” Nastia Liukin, who won the All-Around gold medal in 2008 and was a commentator at the Tokyo Olympics, said, “Thank you for creating a safer space for current and future athletes to unequivocally be themselves.” And 2012 Olympic gymnast Jordyn Wieber said “I never remember feeling like I ever got to make those decisions, even if I had wanted to,” continuing, “the gymnasts don’t have the voice, it’s up to the coaches. And I sometimes describe it as we’re just kind of like robots that do what we’re told.” Wieber, who is now the head gymnastics coach at the University of Arkansas, called Biles “a pioneer,” and Moceanu, who owns and coaches a gymnastics camp, said, “What she did was actually very brave and is a positive sign for the future of the sport.”

All of this would be sufficient to justify the selection of Biles as TIME’s Athlete of the Year for someone who feels such justification is necessary, but there is more. Biles was also one of four gymnasts who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September regarding the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Larry Nassar. While the other three gymnasts—Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols—were all outstanding gymnasts, with Raisman and Maroney competing in the Olympics, only Biles is still actively competing. She had to testify just a month and a half after the Tokyo Olympics—an Olympics at which she was representing not just the United States, but also USA Gymnastics. Of that, Wieber commented, “I can take some guesses and imagine that it’s probably difficult to represent an organization like USA Gymnastics for her, an organization that has failed her so many times and failed a lot of us. I’m just making assumptions here, but I can imagine that it, it adds to the weight of what she carries with her every day of having to represent that organization.” No doubt Wieber is right, given what Biles said in her testimony:

I believe without a doubt that the circumstances that led to my abuse and allowed it to continue, are directly the result of the fact that the organizations created by Congress to oversee and protect me as an athlete – USA Gymnastics (USAG) and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) – failed to do their jobs.

Later, Biles said, “We suffered and continue to suffer because no one at the FBI, USAG or the USOPC did what was necessary to protect us. We have been failed, and we deserve answers.” As she also pointed out in her statement, Biles was the only athlete at the Tokyo Olympics who was abused by Larry Nassar.

Put the Senate committee testimony and the impact of the Nassar abuse and investigation together with everything else described here and Biles should be an obvious choice for Athlete of the Year, not a choice that is second guessed and mocked.

And yet, mockery and scorn is exactly what Biles is receiving. Not only did Davis write his absurd opinion piece, but The Western Journal published it. The Independent Journal Review then published it, too. So opposed are some to the Biles choice that one tweet that Davis chose to include suggested four other candidates for the recognition—only one of which is an American! It is true that TIME’s Person of the Year is not always an American, but it is, after all, an American magazine, so I think a Serbian tennis player, Australian swimmer and Russian tennis player should take a back seat in this discussion.

Far worse that Davis’s article, however, are the comments on the social media pages for The Western Journal and the Independent Journal Review. One charming individual, for example, said, “she’s a triple winner in the Victimhood Olympics – Female, Black and suffers from anxiety.” Several people commented that it was a “woke” decision. More than one called her a quitter, including one guy who said, “She quit on her teammates and America,” echoed by a lady who commented, “She let our country down and deserves no recognition!!” Not to be outdone, another lady said, “She is a failure and a crybaby who deserves nothing.” Someone named Joseph Casale probably topped them all, though, calling Biles the “coward of the year.”

One of the wonderful freedoms we enjoy in the United States is the freedom of speech, and that means that people have the freedom to say and write stupid things. That means internationally known companies and publications, like TIME, and a guy in front of a keyboard or pecking away at his phone like Jospeh Casale—or me. But I could not sit idly by and watch Biles’ recognition be trashed as some politically correct participation trophy. She deserves the recognition and I commend TIME for the choice. Should she ever (miraculously) see this post, I want Simone Biles to know that I do not think she let down her teammates or America…and I admire her courage.

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