The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were a year late and silent. No spectators. Covid did that. The excitement had to be manufactured by commentators explaining what was happening to the television viewers in each particular country far away. Their excitement, once removed, would have to do. But incredible gymnastics performed in dead silence are unsettling. Something was wrong.
And then things got really strange:
Simone Biles arrived in Tokyo as the star of the U.S. Olympic movement and perhaps the Games themselves. She convinced herself she was prepared for the pressure. That she was ready to carry the burden of outsized expectations.
Only, as the women’s gymnastics team final approached on Tuesday night, something felt off. And the athlete widely considered the Greatest of All Time in her sport knew it.
So rather than push through the doubts that crept into her head as she’s done so many times in the past, Biles decided enough was enough. She was done.
The issue was spatial disorientation:
When Simone Biles attempted her first skill of the gymnastics team event at the Tokyo Olympics, a 2½ twisting vault, she quickly knew something was off.
The four-time Olympic gold medalist moved off the competition floor to talk with her coach and soon pulled out of the team, and later the all-around events, citing issues with her mental health.
Biles, 24, later explained to reporters that she “had no idea where I was in the air,” and that she was “having a little bit of the twisties.”
That term is familiar to gymnasts, who know it as a phenomenon where they lose their understanding of where they are in the air, putting them at risk of injury when they land.
Her teammates understood. Lose that understanding of where you are in the air and it’s over. Nothing is possible. That will come back, eventually, but Biles decided she’d only hurt the team with a bad performance. She’d cheer them on instead. They were fine with that, and things did work out:
For years, the gymnast Sunisa Lee wasn’t training just for herself.
Lee, a Hmong American from Minnesota, went to the gym every day for all the people whose parents had immigrated to the United States with nothing after escaping war zones. She endured grueling, painful practices to honor her father, John, who put her in the sport when she was 6 and who now uses a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury.
Lee, 18, had said publicly that her goal was to win silver in the all-around competition at the Olympics, because her teammate Simone Biles was considered a lock for gold.
But when Biles withdrew because of mental stress, Lee got her opportunity and seized it. On Thursday night, she became the fifth consecutive American woman to win the coveted title of best all-around gymnast in the world.
America did just fine. Biles cheered her on. But the conservative right in America will now have to deal with this:
Lee grew up in St. Paul, in an area heavily populated by Hmong immigrants who came to the United States to seek refuge after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Her parents, John Lee and Yeev Thoj, were children when they escaped Laos, where their relatives fought on the American side during the war. They crossed the Mekong River to refugee camps in Thailand. From there, they headed to the St. Paul area, where about 80,000 Hmong now live.
“People say the United States is the land of opportunity, and I’m living proof of that,” John Lee said Thursday in a telephone interview. “For my kid, a Hmong girl, to be on the world stage, winning a gold medal, it’s just the best feeling ever.”
And now everyone is looking up everything they can find on the Hmong. Are they really Americans?
That can wait. Charlie Sykes, the right-wing radio host who decided to leave that all behind, looked back on the world he left and saw this:
After the world’s preeminent gymnast dropped out of Olympic competition this week, right-wing Trump ally Charlie Kirk lashed out at her as a “selfish sociopath” and a “shame to the country.”
“We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles,” said Kirk, who appears in television ads for pain-relief supplements.
He was hardly alone.
“Sorry, Simone Biles, The Olympics Isn’t About You, It’s About Winning for America,” proclaimed The Federalist. Radio host Clay Travis insisted that “she should apologize to her teammates for quitting on them at the moment they needed her the most.” Piers Morgan felt the need to similarly pile on: “I don’t think it’s remotely courageous, heroic or inspiring to quit,” Piers wrote in the Daily Mail.
Conservative writer Amber Athey joined the chorus, insisting that “a true champion is someone who perseveres even when the competition gets tough.”
Sykes sees what’s happening:
Questioning whether Biles is a “true champion” seemed an odd shot to take, considering that the 24-year-old Black woman won four gold medals and a bronze in the last Olympics – tying the record for most gymnastics’ medals won by a woman at a single Games. That was on top of the 19 gold medals, three silver medals and two bronze medals she has won in other world competitions. In the 2019 world championships, she became the first U.S. gymnast to win five gold medals.
American conservatives used to take pride in this sort of thing. But somehow, Simone Biles has become a symbol of everything the right now loathes.
But there’s nothing surprising here:
The attempt to politicize sports is not, of course, new. Donald Trump sought to weaponize peaceful protests against police violence, tweeting out dozens of attacks on NFL players: “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” Trump tweeted at one point. “If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
In a highly choreographed media event, former Vice President Mike Pence walked out of an NFL game after players knelt during the national anthem. The MAGA-verse’s backlash against both the NFL and the NBA intensified after teams and players publicly embraced Black Lives Matter in the wake of the George Floyd killing. The message to athletes – most of them Black – was keep your politics to yourself.
More recently, the attacks have extended to the U.S. Women’s Soccer team. Last weekend, Trump encouraged the crowd at his weekend rally to boo the American team for losing a match because of “wokeism.”
What? But he really did say that:
“Wokeism makes you lose, ruins your mind, and ruins you as a person. You become warped. You become demented. The US women’s soccer team is a very good example of what’s going on,” Trump said. “Earlier this week they unexpectedly lost to Sweden, 3-0, and Americans were happy about it.”
No they weren’t. But there was this:
All 11 of the team’s starters kneeled for 10 seconds before the game on Wednesday to protest racial injustice and inequality.
But the most prominent figure Trump seems to be talking about is the 36-year-old midfielder Megan Rapinoe.
“We have people from Team USA, from all over the country, from all backgrounds, and people literally from all over the world for every other team,” Rapinoe said, according to The Associated Press. “So I obviously encourage everyone to use that platform to the best of their ability to do the most good that they possibly can in the world, especially as all eyes are on Tokyo these next couple weeks.”
Rapinoe is one of the highest-profile social activists in American sports. She was one of the first athletes to stand in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick by kneeling during the national anthem before an NWSL game in September 2016. She is also an advocate for numerous LGBT organizations, including the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and even has her own gender-neutral clothing brand.
That’s why Trump and everyone on Fox News wanted them to lose every game from now on. They defeated New Zealand 6-1 the next day. Trump had encouraged his crowd to boo the American women’s soccer team during its Olympic run in the coming days. Should they? Who knows now?
Sykes adds this:
In and of itself that was bizarre. What possible effect could Megan Rapinoe’s activism have had on her goal-scoring? But this is what makes the attacks on Biles so odd.
At least on the surface, there was no tangible flashpoint in the culture war here. The assault on the gymnast wasn’t sparked by any act of protest on her part; and there is no discernible “conservative” principle involved in her concerns for her mental health.
But if the attacks lack a coherent idea, they share an increasingly familiar posture. Despite all the rhetoric about individual freedom, the real fetish on the right is toughness.
Men who show emotion, especially those who cry, are weak. Young women who fail to perform are “quitters.” All that matters is strength, winning and a weird obsession with machismo.
Just look at Trump’s rebuke on Wednesday of the “RINOs” he accused of helping Democrats get the infrastructure deal passed: “It is a loser for the USA, a terrible deal, and makes the Republicans look weak, foolish, and dumb.” Not responsive to constituents or committed to bipartisanship, but weak.
That’s all there is now:
This is a recurring theme for Trumpists like Sebastian Gorka, who has insisted that “the Left and the Never Trumpers alike who hate the former president hate him because he is a man’s man, and an old school leader in every sense of the phrase.”
Describing Trump as a “man’s man,” might be a stretch beyond the reaches of parody, but the attitude reflects the shift of the right from a movement ostensibly about ideas and values, to one invested in “owning the libs” and enforcing racial and gender standards.
And meanwhile, in Tokyo:
In this brave new world of faux-toughness, Simone Biles as an individual simply does not matter – she is merely an instrument of national greatness, with her actual humanity regarded as an inconvenient afterthought.
That’s why her critics spend so little time dealing with the role that stress, pressure and a history of sexual abuse likely played in Biles’ decision, because that would mean having to think of her as a person, and for critics like Charlie Kirk and the others, that is utterly irrelevant.
This is also the new ethos on the right. Adam Serwer has famously noted that in Trump’s America, “the cruelty is the point.”
But in late-stage Trumpism, it is not just the cruelty: The lack of empathy is also the point. Insensitivity is cultivated; compassion is derided as weakness.
And thus this woman is vile:
So, we are left with this moment of high absurdity, in which a symbol of human excellence and American greatness is being mocked by bloated white man-children for being “weak.”
They have decided that Simone Biles represents everything they oppose.
How revealing is that?
That’s as revealing as this item in the Daily Beast:
In the months since the U.S. Capitol assault, Donald Trump has led the GOP efforts to distort and dismiss the realities of the anti-democratic and deadly riot that the former president himself instigated.
In his retelling, Ashli Babbitt – who was shot and killed trying to enter the House chamber on Jan. 6 – wasn’t so much a rioter as she was an “innocent, wonderful, incredible woman.” And, in Trump’s mind, some of the police officers who defended the Capitol that day aren’t the real heroes, calling them liberal “pussies” who loathe MAGA, and outliers within a broadly pro-Trump law enforcement community.
Yes, they’re weak:
In private discussions this summer, Trump has told some people close to him that several of these officers strike him as weak and as “pussies,” according to two sources familiar with the comments and who described them independently. Trump has also maintained that these men seem “broken” by the events of Jan. 6, and that they do not have the supposed toughness or character of the law enforcement officers who, on the whole nationally, still widely support Trump and his policies.
According to these two people, and another source with knowledge of the matter, the twice-impeached former president has also alleged that these particular police officers are letting themselves be used as pawns by anti-Trump Democrats, like Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), or simply despise Trump and are Democrats themselves.
However, there have been times when the ex-president has expressed some measure of pity for these men, saying that he feels sorry for them – but mostly because Trump thinks they’re being used or exploited by his political foes, the person with knowledge of the situation said.
Wait. Republicans love the police, and now they have to do a little tapdancing:
While the former president belittled the officers who tried to fend off the attack he fomented, members of his party have struggled to settle on how exactly to balance their fealty to Trump with their “back the blue” sloganeering.
The bulk of Republican lawmakers have alternately ignored or insulted the police officers who have spoken out. Some have been totally comfortable impugning the integrity of those who did testify on Tuesday – not as crudely as Trump did, but in conspiratorial tones he likely appreciated.
Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), who was nominated by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to serve on the Jan. 6 panel until Pelosi vetoed the selection, appeared on Fox News on Tuesday night and suggested that the officers were reading from scripts prepared by the speaker.
“Even the statements that these police officers read, you could tell at times they didn’t write the statements,” Banks claimed. “They were merely reading them as they stumbled over some of the words that they weren’t familiar with as they were reading.”
Most Republicans, however, have chosen a safer path: simply not engaging with the testimony, in an attempt to sidestep any explicit support or rejection of the officers who defended the Capitol that day.
And it’s the same with Biles. Jemele Hill sees this:
The 24-year-old’s decision to prioritize her well-being has been mostly praised. “We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being,” USA Gymnastics, the organization that oversees the sport, said in a statement. “Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.” Figures as varied as Justin Bieber and former first lady Michelle Obama have offered words of encouragement, telling the gymnast how inspirational she has been.
The response prompted Biles to tweet: “The outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”
This was a startling statement from an athlete who is widely regarded as the best her sport has ever produced.
She simply said she was more than that, which set off the firestorm:
On his Fox Sports radio show, Ben Maller said that Biles was the “biggest quitter in sports,” and that she was being selfish because “there’s some faceless gymnast who missed getting on Team USA by one spot who would not have walked away and who would have loved the opportunity to be in Tokyo and to compete.”
Well, maybe she is a lazy shiftless nigger. Hill thinks that is what is implied here:
Some people – conservative men in particular – simply cannot bear to see a woman of color making her own choices about what’s best for her. Texas Deputy Attorney General Aaron Reitz called Biles a “national embarrassment” in a tweet in response to a conservative publisher who had posted a video of a famous performance at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in which the gymnast Kerri Strug landed on one foot after performing on the vault with a broken ankle. (Reitz later apologized to Biles, a fellow Texan, on Twitter.)
Efforts to paint Biles as a mentally fragile quitter play into conservatives’ frequent insinuations that Black Americans are not as patriotic as they are – despite the long history of Black people representing, performing for, and fighting for this country without the benefit of full equality.
Obama knew all about that and this is the same sort of thing:
As an athletic matter, Biles had absolutely nothing to prove. She showed up in Tokyo having won every all-around competition she’s entered since 2013, and at the Olympics she was seeking to become the first woman to win back-to-back gold medals in the all-around competition in more than 50 years. Having won five medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics – four gold medals and one bronze – Biles’s only competition in Tokyo was herself.
But also add this:
Then again, Biles was also competing as a reminder of how USA Gymnastics failed girls and women in the sport. Biles was one of more than 150 women and girls who were sexually abused by Larry Nassar, who in 2018 was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for carrying out that abuse while working as a doctor for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics…
Biles admitted a few months ago that a big reason she chose to return for this Olympics was to hold the governing authorities in her sport accountable for enabling Nassar and failing to protect girls and women. “I just feel like everything that happened, I had to come back to the sport to be a voice, to have change happen,” Biles told NBC’s Today show in April. “Because I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side.”
So she showed up, and then did the right thing:
Even though Biles was betrayed by her sport, she redefined it – and she doesn’t owe anyone anything. Certainly not her peace of mind.
And then Will Bunch adds this:
I think there’s an even broader, and more important, collective moment that we’re acting out through the prism of Biles’ emotional travails in Japan. After an unfathomable 16 months of lockdown, prolonged social isolation, rampant unemployment and workplace upheavals, and a never-ending political crisis that at times has veered into the existential, America as a whole is having something of a mental health meltdown.
You see it in so many facets of life right now. Much of it – while less applicable to the Biles situation – is playing out in unhealthy and even violent ways. The rise in unruly or unstable air travelers is of a piece with similar spikes in road-rage shootings and altercations on our highways, in obnoxious fans throwing things or starting stupid fights in our sports arenas, in our restaurant servers in a state of siege from customers who’ve forgotten how to act in public. It’s quite “a tell” that economic crimes are largely flat but murder rates are skyrocketing in America’s cities like Philadelphia, partly from young people who respond to petty beefs by firing weapons into a crowd.
Something is up:
“The pandemic has produced a petri dish of psychological factors that may lead to emotional health problems: anxiety, brain fog, depression, and PTSD,” Luana Marques, a psychologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, told National Geographic in a recent article headlined: “Why ‘getting back to normal’ may actually feel terrifying.” The article notes that both global and U.S.-based surveys of happiness and mental health have shown unprecedented downward spikes amid the COVID-19 crisis, in ways that have yet to fully play out.
Surely “getting back to normal” has been particularly stressful for Olympic athletes like Biles, who saw a year’s delay disrupt their training routines before traveling halfway across the world’s time zones to compete in empty stadiums, amid strict coronavirus rules and restrictions. But her problems are also emblematic of what’s become the key post-pandemic battleground for figuring out happiness or even the meaning of life – which is the workplace. The rat race of getting ahead in late-stage capitalism – the sacrifices and often indignities demanded not only to win a gold medal but also to get promoted to assistant manager at Wendy’s or whatever, all in the name of an often rigged “meritocracy” – is getting a long-overdue reevaluation.
Is it any wonder that Frito-Lay factory workers who for years have been forced to work “suicide shifts” of 12-hours-seven-days-a-week finally walked off the job in disgust, as part of a bigger (and under-reported) national strike wave, or that hot, hectic and unsafe conditions caused the staff at a Nebraska Burger King to post “WE ALL QUIT,” or that thousands of harried restaurant workers are suddenly in no big hurry to return to their old jobs? This same week as the Olympics controversy, America has been riveted by the sometimes-tearful congressional testimony of burly Capitol Police or D.C. officers, wondering where was the emotional support after they were attacked on the job on January 6?
Simply put, aren’t we all Simone Biles right now, questioning everything?
So maybe this is all the same thing:
Biles, after all, is both product and victim of arguably the highest-profile toxic workplace in America – one of 150 top athletes who were sexually abused for years by vile team physician Larry Nassar, a situation so horrific that Biles has admitted to occasional suicidal thoughts. The Nassar scandal took place within a broader culture of abuse in which male coaches placed grueling and often inhumane physical demands on young, impressionable athletes.
The conservative couch commandos who’ve been attacking Biles couldn’t seem to care less about the U.S. medal count in Tokyo or America’s prestige in the world (which has risen sharply since their hero left the White House) or, for that matter, the police officers who risked their lives fighting off Trump’s insurrection.
What is happening, I would argue, is what you might call an immoral panic among the defenders of our vilest forms of capitalism, that Americans are waking up to the idea that there are other ways to live and even flourish outside of a dog-eat-dog workforce that robs humans of their dignity and can even threaten their lives, whether through an 84-hour workweek or “the twisties” on a gymnastics vault.
They are terrified that if an international role model like Biles can walk away from the monster they’ve created, what’s to stop the rest of us?
That’s what just happened in Tokyo. Simone got the twisties. But we all did. Okay. Let’s rethink this.