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Commentary & Opinion

Keith Strudler: Biles Deals Blow To Tokyo Games

The good news for NBC right now when it comes to the Olympic Games is this. It can’t get much worse. I suppose that’s not entirely true, since we could have some kind of full-on Covid outbreak in the Olympic Village or a Hurricane could barrel through Tokyo, which almost happened. But otherwise, we’re fairly close to the floor.

Nowhere did that become more apparent than when the designated star of the Games, American gymnast Simone Biles, withdrew from the team competition for mental health reasons. She’s also withdrawn from the individual all-around competition, perhaps the highest profile medal of the Olympics, and will later determine whether to compete in individual events. Regardless of how this all plays out, it would be hard to imagine a worse thing for NBC to be discussing on prime time than why Simone Biles isn’t competing. That, and why they have a surfing competition on two-foot waves and why why the US men’s basketball team loses to France.

You cannot overstate the importance of Biles to this Olympics, one that sorely needed a transcendent star, someone that could make this program seem like more than simply watching archery competitions in empty stadiums. If you listen hard enough, I think you can actually hear the athletes breathing. It’s like being at a late season Pirates game. But Simone Biles would suspend our disbelief from all that, and from the constant reminders that maybe this whole thing was a bad idea. She would exemplify the Olympic construct of elitism, watching the best in the history of the world do what she does like no other. And she might temporarily unite the wholly divided American public, at least for one shining floor exercise.

Of course, we’ll have none of that, which means we can spend the rest of the Games either arguing about why skateboarding is even in the Olympics or simply changing stations now that the second season of Ted Lasso is out. Which also means we are now left to contextualize the larger issue of athletes and mental health, something that had already come to the front pages through the recent case of Naomi Osaka. Biles’ full acknowledgement of the enormous stress of performing at such a high level with such bright lights shouldn’t be a surprise. The fact that it can become nearly debilitating seems to be.

There’s a lot to unpackage, much of which go beyond the scope and length of this commentary. First, I think we should all feel for Simone Biles. None of us can imagine the commitment required in becoming the best in the world. To not enjoy the fruits of her labor is far more tragic for her than to the rest of the American public who wished to watch. Seeing this otherwise seems both egocentric and shows just how little most people know about the work and constitution of elite athletes. Second, I think we all need to remind ourselves that Simone Biles isn’t an enterprise or brand or corporation. She’s a 24-year-old woman who has been trying to endure remarkable stress through an unprecedented Olympic year. Being the gymnastics star for one Olympics is rough. For two is brutal. Add an additional year to that calculus and a body that’s no longer playing nice, and it’s quite possibly more than the mind can take. Just ask Michael Phelps himself, who struggled mightily with mental health through the process of athletic immortality. In all of these conversations about whether Simone Biles should be praised or admonished, we typically ignore the reality that these are simply human beings with human frailties.

But what does this mean for elite sport, for things like gymnastics where it seems we may push people too far often for too long in the name of perfection? Well, if this is the first time you’ve considered that elite gymnastics may be mentally abusive, you haven’t been paying attention. And I don’t think this will be the end of either the Olympics or the quest for being the best in the world in sport, something that’s older than the Games themselves. But I do think that at a time when social media allows no escape and elite athletes are only a DM away, the brink is now closer than ever. And it’s not that athletes have changed, but perhaps the world has. And that is something that will require some thought for the next Simone Biles to fare better than the last. That, of course, would be good news, something NBC and the Olympics finds in short supply.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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