Perspective | Biles’ Olympic bow out, Osaka’s comments reinforce dangerous precedent for our generation’s athletes

Simone Biles — image via Tom Weller/DeFodi Images

Jul. 30, 11:57 p.m. — This story was updated to include Simone Biles’ comments after withdrawing from numerous gymnastics events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“Physically, I feel good. I’m in shape.”

This is what superstar American gymnast Simone Biles told Hoda Kotb on NBC’s TODAY show following her premature exit from the 2020 Olympic gymnastics team final.

“Emotionally, it varies on time and moment. Coming to the Olympics and being head star isn’t an easy feat.”

Biles went on to explain that while she left the floor with a ‘leg injury’ while her teammates watched in disbelief, the only thing preventing her from competing was “more mental … just dealing with a couple of things internally.”

And with that, the woman who had turned the gymnastics world on its head — pulling off stunts that were simply too dangerous for competitors to achieve, the one who bedazzled the head of a goat on her leotard, the one who (unlike discussions in most sports) has been widely accepted as the greatest to ever compete in her sport, did something no person ever expects from an athlete of her caliber:

On the biggest stage and in the brightest lights… she quit.

Athletes, especially those who are vying to be the best at what they do, are put under an immense amount of pressure to make that happen. What Biles experienced as she exited the floor isn’t a new feeling. It isn’t the first time an athlete has felt that way, and it certainly won’t be the last.

However, despite how much people aren’t willing to admit it, Biles is absolutely held to a higher standard than the average athlete — and rightfully so. It’s part of what comes with undeniable success and remarkable talent. Part of what comes with being a 19-time World Artistic Gymnastics gold medalist. Part of what comes with winning four gold medals at the 2016 Olympics.

And most of all: Part of what comes with being the best.

It requires mental toughness and perseverance — something that can’t be bailed out by God-given athleticism. Every athlete and media outlet likes to talk about having the ‘Mamba Mentality,’ but for some odd reason, Biles, even after self-proclaiming herself to be the ‘GOAT,’ got a pass. It’s a reason I can’t quite put my finger on, either: Is it the fact she said it outright to the public? Her decorated career? The event she competes in?

Biles attempted to explain her mental phenomenon — known as the ‘twisties’ — after withdrawing from numerous gymnastics events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics:

“Literally can’t tell up from down. It’s the craziest feeling ever. Not having control over an inch of your body.”

No matter the reason, watching Biles openly normalize quitting on your team when things get uncomfortable on the biggest stage — from the perspective of an athlete who has never had ‘natural talent’ on their side — simply can’t send a good message. Especially after they finish in 2nd and laugh and smile about it afterwards.

Unfortunately, it’s part of the larger anti-competition epidemic that’s beginning to take hold of the future generations of athletes. And Biles isn’t alone in (whether intentionally or not) aiding its growth.

Naomi Osaka, the no. 1 women’s tennis player in the world, was defeated in the early stages of Tokyo’s Olympics after losing in two straight sets to Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova. It was one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history as Osaka committed 32 unforced errors.

“I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this,” Osaka told the media following the match. “I think it’s maybe because I haven’t played in the Olympics before and for the first year, it was a bit much.”

This remark in its entirety strikes me as a victim’s mentality, and it leaves me wondering: Why does she feel the need to be the victim? Why does there have to be any victim at all? Nobody did anything to directly affect her on-court play. If she had an off day, fine — but to say the pressure of the Olympics was ‘a bit much’ is, quite frankly, childish.

She then stated, “I feel like my attitude wasn’t that great because I don’t really know how to cope with that pressure so that’s the best that I could have done in this situation.”

Now, Osaka is taking her opponent’s hard-earned victory and — for all intents and purposes — devaluing it. As her opponent, I wouldn’t be able to help but feel slighted by remarks such as this one. I just beat the no. 1 player in the world… and now I’m supposed to feel sorry for her?

The similarities both Biles’ and Osaka’s situations share are countless. There’s no doubt in my mind that both of these tremendous athletes work tirelessly and have spent countless hours at perfecting their respective craft. Their work ethic isn’t what I question.

However, neither Biles nor Osaka have been pushed to the brink of utter failure like they faced this week. And failure, as all athletes learn, is the most surefire way to build mental toughness. And when these two athletes stared failure in its face, they turned away.

With that in mind, it all comes down to one principle: When the physical aspect of your game isn’t what needs to be improved, will you be able to push yourself to overcome mental and emotional obstacles, even on the biggest stage?

That’s essential to being a ‘GOAT.’

While this is just one (and unpopular) perspective on the matter, it’s certainly an important one to consider.

As we continue to introduce our future generations of athletes to the sports world — where the balance of praise and criticism can unfortunately sometimes be unequal — it’s now more important than ever that they fully understand just how valuable mental fortitude and toughness truly is.

Thanks for reading. Keep track of every new story I publish — as well as updates that pertain to my existing stories — by following me on Twitter.

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Native Texan. Communication Arts major at Bethel College. Sports and freelance journalist.

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Brett Esch

Native Texan. Communication Arts major at Bethel College. Sports and freelance journalist.