There are 11,000 athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympics and every single one of them knows whose name is up in lights.
Simone Biles is more than an Olympic gymnast. Something even more than an ideal athlete. She is a series of ideas – of physical perfection, of the limits of human capability, of how gravity works on the rest of us, but maybe not so much on her.
Those ideas are worth enormous amounts of money. After all that’s gone wrong here, Ms. Biles was a guarantee that the roughly US$1.75-billion NBC paid to broadcast these Games would produce six nights of must-see TV in every state, red or blue, in America.
Then Ms. Biles decided to make some changes to the schedule. After experiencing what she called “demons” leading into and during Tuesday’s team competition, she pulled herself. She was so out of sorts she got lost in the midst of a vault and was unable to orient herself in the air. That convinced her to pull the chute.
Late on Wednesday afternoon, USA Gymnastics announced Ms. Biles would also miss the individual all-around competition. That’s two more nights cancelled.
It’s still unclear if Ms. Biles intends to compete in the individual events, all of which she is capable of winning.
So a slight change in the direction of this Olympics. Organizers were planning to do a bunch more running, jumping and paddling for your global entertainment. Instead, for the next couple of days, they’re going to hang back and see where Ms. Biles is at. From now until whenever she makes a decision, these Olympics, though continuing, will be on hold.
In the wake of Ms. Biles’s decision to prioritize mental health, all the soldiers of America’s culture wars roused themselves from the couch to begin thumbing each other to death with sick burns. Quitter vs. superhero. Those are the only two online options.
How about this as a starting point – if you don’t feel you should be launching yourself into the air like you’ve been shot out of a cannon, upside down and tumbling, praying you land on your feet instead of the top of your head, then you’re absolutely right. You should not do that.
Ms. Biles could just as easily have said she was prioritizing her life as she is her mental health.
If you peel away all the jawing about whether she should be doing this, there is another layer of consequence to Ms. Biles’s stand. For the first time in a long time, maybe forever, a single athlete has put the International Olympic Committee and the various governing bodies that feed into it on notice: If you don’t take care of me, I won’t take care of you.
Others have tried and been ignored. None of them had Ms. Biles’s stature. She is one of a handful of people capable of bringing the Olympic movement to heel. She’s one of one people who’s decided to use that power.
If pressure is the problem, the fault for creating it is diverse, but the revenue stream isn’t. Ms. Biles was complicit in her transformation into a (evidently unsustainable) human ideal. A lot of corporations wanted in on the Simone Biles business. The result was what started to feel like a rogue wave of publicity as the Games approached. No matter which way you ran, you could not escape her.
The deal was tacitly understood, as it has been for years and for athletes as varied as Mary Lou Retton and Usain Bolt. She gets an opportunity to become even more famous and admired; the IOC gets to make all the money off the content thereby created however it turns out.
For a long time, athletes have thought of that as a fair deal. At worst, they get to drop the word “Olympian” into their CVs. At best, they become global superstars. But if they want to make real money off the transaction, they’ll have to do that after the Games.
This racket operated on the assumption that no one was brave or stupid enough to question the basic logic of the deal. Then on Tuesday, Ms. Biles said this: “It’s okay sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong a competitor and person you really are, rather than just battle through it.”
Up in the IOC’s alpine star chamber, that will have been heard as something much more than a challenge to the status quo. That is heresy.
What must the thousands of kids who are future Olympians make of that statement. The IOC and its corporate partners have spent years telling them that Ms. Biles isn’t just great, but something approaching an athletic demi-god.
Now she’s just told them: This, right here, the Olympics – this isn’t the measure of greatness. So don’t kill yourself for these guys. It’s not worth it.
That is an insurrectionary idea. It puts the Olympics on completely different footing with its … actually, what should we call the athletes in this context? “Employees” is wrong. How about “volunteers?”
They volunteer to make someone else billions of dollars, in return for the chance to win a nice necklace, and then get a cool tattoo they pay for themselves.
Ms. Biles hasn’t just derailed the Tokyo Games. She hasn’t just pushed mental health to the very top of the priority list of every for-profit league and athletic organization in the world.
She has also planted a philosophical wrench in the workings of the Olympic movement. She’s got six Olympic medals. She hasn’t lost a straight-up gymnastics fight since she was a child in braces. But this may be the thing she is best remembered for.
The Games have always been an emperor’s new clothes situation. The IOC didn’t create the Olympics. They don’t put on the Olympics. They don’t perform in the Olympics. They just cash the cheques and distribute the winnings.
Ms. Biles has just reminded her fellow athletes that the IOC isn’t the talent. They are.
And if the talent isn’t happy with how things are being run or how they’re feeling, then the talent is fully capable of stopping the show.
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