Simone Biles is indisputably in a league of her own, and it’s not just because of her untouchable level of talent.
By competing in the sport she loves and dominates, she is forced to represent an organization that was complicit in the trauma of her and hundreds of other gymnasts. Additionally, as a Black woman, she faces racism and sexism within and outside the sport. Yet Biles continues to display her greatness by being the best gymnast in the world. Her withdrawal from the team finals at the 2020 Olympic Games does not disprove that, but rather further proves the unbearable pressure she has battled with every day for the past eight years.
In 2016, former USA Gymnastics medical coordinator Larry Nassar was publicly accused of sexual abuse in an Indianapolis Star report. After years of ignored sexual misconduct reports from patients he treated within the USA womens’ gymnastics team and at Michigan State University, former gymnast Rachel Denhollander and an unnamed former Olympic medalist publicly exposed Nassar. The news shocked the world, as it seemed USA Gymnastics had ignored a problem brought to their attention several times over the course of several years.
At the height of the #MeToo movement in October 2017, McKayla Maroney of the “Fierce Five” 2012 Olympic team was the first to announce that she had been abused by Nassar. Following her statement, both Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas of the same team said that they, too, had been victims of Nassar.
Finally in January 2018, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison in a seven-day trial, where 156 women testified against him. Raisman delivered her famous speech in which she addressed Nassar, USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic Committee: “USA Gymnastics, where is the honesty? Where is the transparency? Why must the manipulation continue?”
In the midst of the trial, Simone Biles came forward about her abuse for the first time. She wrote in a Twitter statement, “It is impossibly difficult to relive these experiences and it breaks my heart even more to think that as I work towards my dream of competing in Tokyo 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused.”
Biles is the only Olympic gymnast to reveal her abuse and continue competing at an elite level — and that is not to imply that any other gymnast is less admirable for not returning to an organization that has done nothing but harm them. Many of the gymnasts who came forward had already retired from elite gymnastics prior to the Nassar trial. Biles was simply in a different position than most of her peers who suffered the same. While others were finishing their careers or had already finished, Biles was still at the top of her game, causing the situation to be a bit more complicated.
It was uncovered after Nassar’s trial that USAG officials directly hid from Biles the 2015 FBI investigation of Nassar leading up to the 2016 Olympic Games — despite knowing that Biles was a possible victim, according to the Wall Street Journal. Biles has expressed her frustration and feelings of betrayal toward USAG, saying, “We had one goal, and we’ve done everything that they’ve asked us for, even when we didn’t want to, and they couldn’t do one damn job. You had one job; you literally had one job, and you couldn’t protect us.”
When asked about her choice to return to the sport after the Nassar scandal, Biles told TODAY, “I had to come back to the sport to be a voice, to have change happen. Because I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side.”
It cannot be easy for Biles to return to the same training facilities, gyms and arenas where she experienced abuse. In fact, it might be the hardest part of her career. It is a heavy burden that should not be placed on her shoulders. However, Biles’ ability to take her trauma and turn it into advocacy for an entire community is truly special. If Biles were to have left the sport, no one would be left to demand justice from the people on the inside. Biles knows she is the most valuable asset to USAG and she puts her passion above her past because she knows the issue is bigger than herself. If Biles demands change and uses her voice to an audience that reveres her, then USAG has no choice but to at least attempt to take steps in the right direction.
Although it would have been completely commendable to retire after the Nassar trial, especially after voicing how betrayed and disappointed she felt at the hands of USAG, Biles’ dedication to fixing the broken system is what makes her one of a kind. It should not be expected for any victim of abuse to stay in the same environment that caused them pain. In spite of this, Biles refuses to leave future gymnasts to suffer the same fate as her and her teammates, and she would not let a corrupt organization get away with unforgivable actions without trying to incite change.
Even aside from Nassar, Biles’ success did not come without trials. When Biles became the first Black gymnast to win the all-around title at the 2013 World Championships, she was met with racist comments from her competition. Carla Ferlito, of the Italian team, told reporters, “Next time we should paint our skin black so we could win, too.”
And with four signature moves to her name, Biles is no stranger to contention over her performance. On top of the ongoing battle of representing a sport and an organization that has caused Biles and her teammates lasting trauma, the Women’s Technical Committee (WTC) has limited her potential point value for competing never-done-before skills. There are arguments that it would be unfair to give Biles an even higher execution score because no other gymnasts can do what she does. The WTC says they cannot give her extra point potential because that would encourage other athletes to try Biles’ moves, which would inevitably lead to injuries.
But why offer high-level skills and encourage athletes to improve and try new things if they won’t be rewarded for doing so? Why would any gymnast be incentivized to attempt a never-before-seen trick if their point value will not be amended? Biles says, “Because I can.”
And Biles carries that attitude throughout her career. Why be the oldest U.S. Olympic team gymnast since the 2004 Games? Because she can. Why wear a goat-bedazzled leotard after being called “cocky” and “arrogant” online? Because she can. Why have the most Worlds medals of any gymnast in history? Because she can. Why continue to compete tricks that no one has attempted with no competitive gain? Because she can.
So yes, she can do all of this with the eyes of the world on her. But she should not have to go to these lengths to be considered the best. The insurmountable weight on Biles’ shoulders was not spoken about until just before this year’s Games. Biles was supposed to be an indomitable force, one that was not fazed by anything and would carry Team USA without ever slipping up. After a few uncharacteristic mistakes in the qualifications round of the Tokyo Games, Biles opened up to fans in an Instagram post: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard…”
When asked by the New York Times a week before the Games what the happiest moment of her gymnastics career had been, Biles responded with “Honestly, probably my time off.” Though a surprising answer on the surface, it makes perfect sense when you realize that her time off was the only time she was able to be a human: she did not have to be the Simone Biles who had to ensure that USAG would amend its past; she did not have to be the Simone Biles that had not lost an all-around competition since 2013; she did not have to be the Simone Biles who had the entire world holding unbelievably high expectations for her.
Prioritizing her own mental health after years of pressure that would absolutely crack anyone else is not a crime. It does not make her selfish, it does not make her any less of a team player, it does not make her weak. After everything she has done for USAG and the team in the last eight years, Biles’ mental well-being is more important than any medal at stake. Biles is a human being dealing with more demand than any human being should be expected to deal with, and she should not have to push herself to a breaking point physically and mentally so that this country can win another medal that USAG honestly does not deserve for their treatment of their athletes. Biles’ teammates deserved to win gold, but the team coordinator should not have put them in a position that relied solely on Biles’ scores to safeguard the gold. Biles’ prioritization of her mental health is laudable and a lesson we can all learn from.
Biles’ resilience goes far beyond what is or should be expected of any other athlete or person. Nobody’s strength should have to extend to withstanding sexual abuse from a supposedly trusted team doctor, and strength should not be measured by one’s actions following such horrific circumstances. It is not Biles’ responsibility to relive her trauma in order to hold an entire organization accountable. That being said, Simone Biles’ capacity to continue competing in a sport for this long that has caused her and her teammates such unimaginable pain not only displays her spirit and dedication, but also teaches that your trauma does not define you. Biles took what she saw was wrong with her sport and vowed not to quit until it was right, in spite of inconceivable pressure. No one deserves the title “Greatest Of All Time” more than Simone Biles.