I love this little (physically) girl. Part of the reason is that she’s little only in stature. Her personality is huge, her influence on her sport is towering, and when US Gymnastics appeared ready to ignore the larger implications of what enabled serial abuser Larry Nassar, she took courageous action. The courage she continues to exhibit in taking down the paternalist nightmare that US Gymnastics is goes without saying.

Into one human flowed all these conflicting pressures: The pressure to perform in an elite competition, the added pressure of being a favorite to win, and if that’s not enough, the need to validate the “Greatest of All Time” label she had already been given.

But, there were even more stressors. She was re-entering an event which is, to her, a trigger for sexual abuse; she was sponsored by an organization (US Gymnastics) which she was suing, for actively trying to cover up the involvement of all the other individuals who were facilitating Larry Nassar.

Competitive pressure, legal pressure, social pressure. Huge.

So, she got the yips at the worst possible time. And in gymnastics, the yips are physically dangerous. Nobody gets overly concerned about life and limb when a golfer can no longer make a putt, or a 2nd baseman suddenly can’t field a ground ball. When you’re ten feet above ground on a vault…different story.

So, she withdrew.

This was undoubtedly the wisest decision, although the timing was terrible, pulling out after team competition had begun. Despite the fact that her “yips” had manifested the day before during qualifying, she went out (unwisely) into the team competition to give it the “old college try”. So, although withdrawing was the right decision for her own safety and the good of the team…. she was immediately criticized because of her timing. Athletes and sports fans will always come down hardest on athletes who appear to have let their teammates down. That fact will never change, and shouldn’t.

So, you have a situation where an elite athlete does the right thing, but the extenuating circumstances warrant criticism. That’s now part of her legacy. Can’t change history once it’s written. Let’s move on.

Unfortunately, it has been the supporters of Biles who have done the most damage in this debate, first by broadening some of their arguments to “all athletes”, when Simone’s situation was unique, then by defending a fair piece of criticism (the team aspect) in an intellectually fallacious way.

It is important to point out that Biles’ situation is unique. Less than 1% of all elite athletes are considered “Greatest of All Time” in their sports, and of that infinitesimally small number who are, none to my knowledge were also (a) suing their national federation while representing them, and (b) dealing with the fact that their federation facilitated their sexual abuse, (c ) while competing at the event which triggers the stress.

Now, down to the fallacious argumentation.

Argument #1. The elite athlete has no responsibility to compete. The only concern they should have is their own well-being.

Sorry, but even if you overlook the “teammate” aspects mentioned above, there are also financial implications.

Elite athletes in non spectator sports derive the bulk of their income from sponsorships. That sponsor wants to see their emblem on award stands, not in spectator stands. Further, NBC, who pays $1.25B an Olympics, expects to recoup their investment by ad sales, which they charge for based on the popularity of the event and the notoriety of the (expected) competitors. If the acclaimed competitor doesn’t compete, there are impacts on viewership.

I wouldn’t want to guess where this goes, but it would not surprise me that if withdrawals suddenly became more common, that requirements to appear and compete in certain major events get tied to athlete compensation.

Argument #2. Attention to the mental health of athletes has never happened before. It’s good that Biles (and Osaka) raised awareness about this.

Sorry again. Sports psychology has been a thing since the 80’s. You can major in it:

Admittedly, the focus of sports psychology has been performance optimization as opposed to the outright mental health of the athlete. But these two objectives have huge overlap were they to be shown as a Venn Diagram. Sports psychologists are well versed in helping athletes develop tools to compartmentalize personal stresses away from their competition, and more specifically, how to deal with the “yips.”

Argument #3. Take the athlete at their word. If they say they have hit their limits, accept it.

This is a ticket to mediocrity. Every elite athlete has a coach in his or her face, usually often, demanding (often not politely) that they push their own limits of pain and endurance in order to reach an objective. It is an expected part of the territory of sports, and it is also expected that the coach and athlete will sometimes disagree on where those limits are. Good coaches (and yes, there are a lot of bad ones) know when the athletes limit is reached and when it is not, and pushes the elite athlete past those limits.

Again, this is part of the landscape of elite sport.

Sport, at the causal level, is about participation, enjoyment, and fitness. At the elite level, it is a daily hell that is endured only by certain special individuals who are willing to put aside all other interests and ignore risk and pain to achieve a defined goal.

Simone Biles, due to a unique set of stressors, was unable to safely achieve her goal. She deserves support and sympathy for her ordeal.

But for all others, keep the expectations high.

Free markets, free minds. Question all narratives. If you think one political party is right and the other party is evil, the problem with our politics is you.