From the way that Olympic gymnast Simone Biles is being praised this week, you might think that the decorated superstar put on a heroic display during the team competition in Tokyo and led her squad to a gold medal.
Prominent politicians like Ayanna Pressley and Cori Bush have made public statements applauding her. The White House Press Secretary expressed “gratitude and support.” Deadspin gushed over “the most impressive move of her career.” Former Olympians joined in the group hug. Articles have been written extolling her bravery and declaring that her achievements this week have sent a “powerful message” to the world. CNN called her performance “impactful.” She has been hailed for her strength and for “setting an amazing example” and being a great athlete and role model. Women’s advocacy groups have thanked her.
It was all perhaps the most effusive praise that has ever been heaped on a quitter.
That is what Simone Biles did to earn this exuberant applause. She gave up. After struggling in the qualifying rounds, and botching her first event in the women’s team finals, Biles decided to withdraw from the meet. The best gymnast on the squad, one of the most celebrated U.S. Olympic athletes of all time, chose to abandon her team in the middle of the finals. Her teammates would finish second behind Russia, while Biles went on to receive even more acclaim than a gold medal would have earned her.
There was some talk early on suggesting that Biles had been physically injured. But that was not the case. Biles has since explained that she left the competition in order to focus on her “mental health” and her “mindfulness.” She complained that the Olympics haven’t been “fun” this year. “This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself when I came in — and I felt like I was still doing it for other people,” she said. Returning to this theme later, she said that it’s important to “put mental health first” because if you don’t then “you’re not going to enjoy your sport.” She complained about the “pressure” that she’s under.
On one hand, there is nothing terribly surprising about the reasons she gives for quitting. People quit things all the time, and they almost always do it because the thing they are quitting is too difficult and not very fun. This is the universal rationale of all quitters everywhere, for all time. In this case, there is no doubt that the difficult thing was very difficult indeed. The pressure she experiences as a world famous athlete on a global stage must be quite burdensome on both an emotional and physical level. This is what makes quitting understandable. But the one thing that it cannot be is admirable.
If Simone Biles had bailed on her team and apologized after the fact, and the public had reacted appropriately to the news, then there wouldn’t be much to else to say on the matter. It is hard to compete in the Olympics. It is hard to live up to high expectations. Lots of people quit when things are hard. We all have, at one time or another. That is why, when someone quits, we normally shake our heads and say, “That’s a shame,” and then we move on with our lives. Nobody is suggesting that athletes who quit ought to be tarred and feathered in the street. It is enough to be disappointed and be done with it.
The problem is that now we are exhorted not simply to understand why someone quits, but to actively applaud them for doing so. What makes the Simone Biles story troubling is not that the women’s gymnastic team had to settle for a silver medal, but that our cultural powers that be want us to celebrate cowardice. As always, it is not enough to merely tolerate another person’s decision or to be compassionate towards their struggles. We are meant, now, to rise to our feet and joyously cheer what all people throughout history, and most people living in the world today, would consider shameful and unfortunate. It is one thing to say: “Simone Biles quit, but let’s have some empathy.” It is quite another to say: “Simone Biles quit. Isn’t that so brave?”
No, no it is not brave. It may be human, it may be relatable, but it is the opposite of brave. To be brave is to refuse to quit precisely when most people would. That is why we admire people who persevere: because they are rare. Quitters are a dime a dozen. Cowardice is in no short supply in our world, and it will become even more common now that we have rebranded it as courage. Indeed, if we will grant to cowardice the rewards of courage without the effort and sacrifice, why bother with courage at all?
The many defenders of Simone Biles have said that she is right — a role model, in fact — for prioritizing her “mental health” above all else. In the era of the Psychological Man, when there is nothing more important than the self’s opinion of itself, it is perhaps no surprise that we should congratulate a woman for explicitly putting herself before her team and her country. And yet, still, one wonders how consistently this new moral code would be applied. Would Tom Brady receive such a worshipful reaction if he left in the third quarter of a playoff game because he “wasn’t having fun” and needed to work on his “mindfulness”?
Such a thing is almost unthinkable because it has never happened and probably never would. But there have been cases of sulking professional athletes leaving the field or the court a few seconds early because they were frustrated and sad during a bad loss. We’ve seen this move from LeBron James, for example, perhaps the greatest sulker in all of sports. There are usually a few people willing to defend this kind of behavior from male athletes, but they’ve never been celebrated like a returning war hero the way Simone Biles has been, and Naomi Osaka before her.
Perhaps we will get there one day, though. Maybe we are fast approaching a time when the greatest athletes will be those who manage to feel the best about themselves while competing. At that point, we will not need them to perform any athletic feats at all. They can simply stand in a circle and whisper sweet nothings to themselves. Everyone wins in the end. It may not make for much of a spectator sport, but at least we will know that nobody’s mental health has been damaged.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.