Simone Biles is considered the greatest gymnast in history. She has dominated the global gymnastics stage for the better part of a decade, going where no other female gymnast has gone in terms of ability, complexity, and innovation.
She is a survivor of sexual abuse, one of the many young women who suffered at the hands of convicted sex offender and disgraced former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar, who will spend the rest of his life in prison.
She is a young, black woman representing a deeply divided country in the midst of a reckoning on racism and inequality.
To infer that she isn’t “strong” or a good role model for children, as UK television personality Piers Morgan did on Twitter this week, is an insult to the courage she has shown at the Tokyo Olympics, and the many years leading up to it.
“Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport?” Morgan tweeted out to his 7.9 million followers. “What a joke. Just admit you did badly, made mistakes, and will strive to do better next time. Kids need strong role models not this nonsense.”
Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport? What a joke.— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) July 27, 2021
Just admit you did badly, made mistakes, and will strive to do better next time.
Kids need strong role models not this nonsense.
Morgan then doubled down on his criticism, blaming so-called “virtue-signallers” for fuelling a culture of celebrating “weakness”.
“Athletes are now deemed more courageous, inspiring & heroic if they lose or quit then if they win or tough it out, which is ridiculous. I blame Twitter’s virtue-signallers for fuelling this culture of celebrating weakness. The real world doesn’t think like that,” he wrote.
Choosing to opt out of competition, first at the women’s team event, and later confirming she would miss the all-round individual event, is an incredibly brave decision by Biles. With the eyes of the world on her, she made the choice to be vulnerable and talk openly about her mental health struggles.
“It’s ok sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and person you really are. Rather than just battle through it,” she told the press after her withdrawal from the team event.
“At the end of the day, we’re human, too. We have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
Morgan has been a fierce critic of many notable black women on the world stage recently, Meghan Markle and tennis player Naomi Osaka are examples that stick out. Morgan similarly criticised Osaka when she said she was dealing with anxiety and depression and wanted to withdraw from some media commitments and games.
Again, his line was that Osaka was not strong, and that her commentary about her mental health was a cop out. Similar commentary has spilled out of right-wing media in the US, too.
According to Biles, seeing Osaka speak up helped her to do something similar at the Olympics, where the 24-year-old admitted she felt as if she had the “weight of the world” on her shoulders.
In choosing to step away and take a breather, Biles has obliterated the status quo in high-performance sport that so often values perseverance above all else.
Acknowledging Biles’ vulnerability as real strength is important, and as US Congresswoman Cori Bush shared, Biles’ prioritisation of her health and peace matters. Especially in her position as a role model to many.
“I stand with Simone Biles. I still stand with Naomi Osaka,” Bush said. “You’re reminding Black women that we can take the space we need for ourselves.”
I stand with Simone Biles.— Cori Bush (@CoriBush) July 27, 2021
I still stand with Naomi Osaka.
Your health and peace matters. You’re reminding Black women that we can take the space we need for ourselves.