Simone Biles and the Ugly Side of Sport
It turns out that the GOAT is a human being.
Earlier this week, the woman who is almost certainly the greatest gymnast of all time suddenly withdrew from the Olympic team competition with what at first seemed like an injury but was soon revealed to be an unspecified “mental health” issue. While many applauded the courage it took to do that, many others expressed their frustration that this cost her team and country a gold medal.
Piers Morgan‘s column for The Daily Mail (“Sorry Simone Biles, but there’s nothing heroic or brave about quitting because you’re not having ‘fun’ – you let down your team-mates, your fans and your country“) is typical of the latter view. After a long windup, he observes,
She was the leader of the team, and indeed the unofficial leader of Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics as the squad’s most successful Olympian.
As such, she was expected to lead by example.
However, in her first exercise, the Vault, she made a big mistake.
She was supposed to do an ‘Amanar’ vault, which begins with a roundoff back handspring onto the table followed by two 1/2 twists in mid-air, but she only did one 1/2 twist instead.
Biles looked annoyed with herself, just as she did when she fell at the World Championships.
But rather than dust herself down and battle on for Gold, as she did in 2018, she did something which absolutely staggered me.
The world’s greatest ever gymnast, a woman who proudly told me how she fought back after making big mistakes to win Gold, just gave up at the first hurdle of these Olympics.
She left her team to fight on without their leader and supreme motivational champion, and rather than win the Gold medal they were hot favourites to win, they came second to the Russians.
Biles said she wasn’t carrying an injury.
‘Physically, I feel good, I’m in shape,’ she said. ‘Emotionally, that kind of varies on the time and moment. Coming to the Olympics and being head star isn’t an easy feat.’
Head star… hmmm, there’s that GOAT ego rearing its head again.
But if you’re going to call yourself the Greatest of All Time and ‘head star’ then you’re putting a lot of that pressure on yourself, aren’t you?
Then Biles said something really extraordinary and illuminating: ‘I feel like I’m also not having as much fun. This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself, but I came in and I felt like I was still doing it for other people. It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.’
You’re not just at these Games for yourself, Simone.
You are part of Team USA, representing the United States of America, and hundreds of millions of American people watching back home, not to mention all the sponsors who’ve paid huge sums to support you.
And when you quit, you were performing as part of a gymnastics team, not yourself.
It’s also not supposed to just be about having fun.
There’s more but you get the point.
Eren Orbey expressed the counterargument (“The Radical Courage of Simone Biles’s Exit from the Team USA Olympic Finals”) for The New Yorker.
On Monday, before the team final, Biles wrote on Instagram that she felt “the weight of the world” bearing down on her: “I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The olympics is no joke!” The endless praise that Biles receives for her “superhuman” abilities can lead to a kind of dehumanization, enforcing an incessant expectation that she not only perform but outperform and a sense of bafflement in the rare instances that she doesn’t.
In a conversation last week, the gymnast Aly Raisman, a two-time Olympian and a former teammate of Biles’s, told me, “Gold medals shouldn’t be the most important thing.” Gymnastics is a notoriously punishing sport: as Raisman explained, athletes are often encouraged, if not forced, to compete despite injuries. Perhaps the most famous athlete to do so was Kerri Strug, who, in the 1996 Olympic team final, performed a second vault on an injured ankle before being escorted off the mat by her coaches and by Larry Nassar, a team trainer at the time. That year, the U.S. women won gold, and the moment has since been mythologized as an exemplar of athletic grit. Today, though, Krug’s painful hop landing reads differently, less as a heroic sacrifice than as an unnecessary and essentially career-ending strain. To many spectators, Biles’s decision not to compete on Tuesday is a heartbreak, but it is also a welcome example of an athlete setting her own limits.
After Biles’s rocky vault performance, some observers speculated that she had been suffering from “the twisties,” a gymnast’s term for a loss of air awareness during routines. Continuing to compete in that state would have been downright dangerous; it’s easy to forget that the skills gymnasts strain to render seemingly effortless could, with even minor slips, leave them paralyzed or worse. At a press conference later in the morning, standing beside her three teammates, Biles said that she had exited the competition because the pressure had become too much. She cited as inspiration Naomi Osaka, the Japanese American tennis champion who withdrew from two Grand Slam tournaments earlier this year to prioritize her mental health. “We have to protect our minds and our bodies, and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do,” Biles said. Her withdrawal from the team final was not the handy victory that the public, or USA Gymnastics, was expecting from her at the Olympics. But it was its own kind of achievement, one that has the potential to affect the next generation of gymnasts more than any single medal could.
I’m ashamed to say that my initial reaction to the news was much closer to Morgan’s than Orbey’s. Partly, that’s because, despite having watched Olympic gymnastics for decades, I had never previously heard of “the twisties” and hadn’t given much thought to the immense danger being even slightly off one’s mental game in the sport posed. Partly, it’s because I had compartmentalized Nassar’s abuses and not given much thought to how much being a face of that victimhood had ground on Biles.
But, ultimately, it’s deeper than either of those things. As much as athletes can be heroes, they’re also dehumanized. Fans expect the extraordinary from them so that we can revel in their vicarious success.
Yesterday, I saw a lot of tweets like this one:
And Biles herself, graciously focusing only on the positive feedback and ignoring the awfulness, tweeted
The woman is 24 years old and has been performing for others essentially her whole life. But, despite her massive fame, most of us only think of her as an athlete and view her humanity through that lens. Yes, Piers Morgan is a jerk. But he genuinely admired Biles the athlete and exalted her pushing through injuries that would sideline any of us and excelling—and took her finally putting her own mental and physical health first as a betrayal.
The Olympics is both the best and the worst of sporting events. It’s the biggest stage. It’s amped up with national pride and the sense that the athletes represent their countries and, thus, all of us. But, at least in the United States, we rarely pay attention to most Olympic sports outside of the Olympics and simply expect to win. Going back at least to the Lake Placid Games in 1980, we love to shout USA! USA! USA! when our athletes win gold medals for us, as though we had spent years sacrificing ourselves. And we can act like petulant children when they don’t.
We’re seeing it even with our Olympic basketball team, which is comprised of household names. We reveled in the 1992 Dream Team crushing all of their opponents by ridiculous margins. After that, we simply expected to win, even though other countries increasingly have NBA stars of their own and compete as national teams—playing by very different rules—more regularly. We may well not win it all this year (and, yes, I’m aware that I just referred to the team in the first person) because the COVID-delayed NBA season just ended and we’ve cobbled together an exhausted team with no time to practice together, much less gel.
But it’s not just the Olympics, of course. In the era of free agency, even with professional teams, we’re “rooting for the laundry.” Players come and go and, in football especially, most of them are faceless. It’s even worse in college sports, where we put impossible expectations on 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old kids to be perfect under enormous pressure only to forget about most of them when they finish playing for our schools. And, when players get injured, our first thought is seldom for their well-being but the impact on our team’s—or even our fantasy team’s—chances of success.
Part of this just goes with the territory. Sports are different from other forms of entertainment precisely because of their ability to create this vicarious attachment. “Fan” is short for fanatic, after all. But it’s too easy to forget that athletes are people, first and foremost. And I need to try harder to remember that.
Piers is more than a jerk. He is ignorant about what actually the issue is/was. This isn’t something that can be “pushed through”.
It also isn’t really “putting her mental health first” as so many others immediately championed.
She has the “twisties“. For baseball fans, it’s closest analogue is “Steve Blass disease” – the inability to throw to first base. Its inexplicable in many ways but also very real. And in gymnastics, it (a) is incredibly dangerous and (b) means that continuing to compete in a team event destroys any chance of the team winning.
The minute she got the twisties, she lost a huge portion of her skill. She isn’t the gymnast she had been previously.
@SKI: Oh, absolutely. This wasn’t communicated well initially and I don’t know when Morgan wrote the column.
How surprising that a white dude puts his feels and imagined promises ahead of the wellbeing of a female black athlete’s own understanding of her well being.
This is a well documented piece of Morgan’s personal history (he really seems to have a problem with women, especially black ones). But it’s indicative of a much larger trend in sports.
There was another column I read written by an ex-gymnast who was pointing out how dangerous it would have been for Biles to have continued. Gymnastic routines and movements aren’t actions that you can “just pull a little back from.” Landing the wrong way could have broken her neck and left her paralysed for life.
What is it that Piers Morgan has about Black women? I get the feeling he would have wanted Biles to participate and get permanently injured just so he could cry crocodile tears for her.
There’s just a difference between losing a game (not important) and landing on your head after doing an incredibly-complicated aerial (important). You can see the fear in Simone Bile’s face as she comes out that. She’s not afraid of losing or missing a foul shot at a crucial moment.
The guys who are getting really upset about Simone Biles are guys who bring everything down to their level, i.e. offices, petty grievances, and their own egos.
@SKI: my memory is hazy but years ago I read about some brain imaging studies on I think golfers that showed ‘yips’ on a neurological level. When they made a swinging motion, instead of the normal smooth motor neuron activity, there was a spike which jerked their muscles in a weird way. Anybody who thinks this is ‘chickening out’ is a useless moron.
A friend, on the Book of Faces:
Too many Americans think Simone Biles belongs to them. She belongs only to herself.
Too many Americans think Simone Biles owes them gold medals. She owes nothing to anyone but herself.
Even I, a (very) amateur athlete, understand what it’s like to experience mental health issues related to my sport. Biles, who is a far more talented, skilled, and experienced athlete than I, surely understands this at a far higher level. I’m certainly not going to second-guess her decision, which was made in a far harsher (to say the least) environment than any I will ever experience. If she did not believe she could compete safely and at an Olympic level, we must trust her judgment.
And she didn’t betray the team, her pulling out when she did gave them the chance to win the silver. Had she continued to compete, they probably would have come away with no medal and potentially incurred a career-ending injury for her.
BTW, to appreciate how much of gymnastics is mental (like all sports) and how much of a competition can be thrown off by a single unexpected variable, enjoy this article about what happened when the vault in the 2000 Olympics was accidentally set 2 inches too low:
Thank you James.
One Piers Morgan, I think that his track record speaks for itself on his character.
One thing that was pointed out is that failing at swimming means you a half-length behind; failure at skeet means missing the target; failure at gymnastics means broken bones on up to paralysis and death.
@Matt Bernius: wow
@James Joyner: This whole situation has emphasized how poorly served we are in our instant-reaction world. Everyone is seemingly required to have their own take on everything immediately regardless of their actual knowledge. The less knowledge, the quicker the take. And those initial takes get very sticky very quickly.
After all she has given? She doesn’t owe a damn thing to anyone. It was always her choice to make and she’s made it. The Piers Morgans of the world can go f’ themselves.
@mattbernius: @grumpy realist: I’m only passingly familiar with Morgan but only chose this particular column because 1) it was trending on memeorandum this morning and 2) encapsulated a series of arguments I’d seen elsewhere and, indeed, in my own instant reaction.
@SKI: Yes. Twitter, especially, damn near demands hot takes RIGHT NOW because things that happened 45 minutes ago are OLD NEWS AND WHY ARE YOU STILL TALKING ABOUT THIS. Blogging rewards that, too, and I do much less of it than in the old days where I wrote 10-15 posts every day. But most of what I write here is sharing what I’m reading/thinking about rather than intended as a final draft.
What I don’t get is the levels of anger and hatred associated with such things.
It also seems worse when women are involved. Remember when Andrew Luck retired? There was puzzlement, but not much anger (as I recall).
The Olympics are just a game, a diversion and amusement. Spectacular, yes, but nothing more. You may get a high at the big wins, and overall enjoy watching the spectacle, and good for you. But your life will go on as it did before, regardless of who wins the gold medal at what sport.
Yes, it’s also big business. And for the sponsors and some of the athletes, the stakes are huge. Their lives won’t go on as before if they win, or if they fail to win when expected. But to 99.99% of the people in the planet, there are no stakes but momentary emotional ones, which either way will be forgotten in two weeks.
Is that worth getting murderously angry over?
Ok, this is great! McSweeney’s on “Are you allowed to criticize Simone Biles? A decision tree.”
(There are equivalent movements in ballet which–if you aren’t absolutely positive you can do them, don’t even try, because a failure will have devastating effects. I learned this the hard way when attempting a double tour en l’air. Ended up with a very badly sprained ankle, a torn tendon, and what turned out to be permanent ankle damage.)
I prefer to believe Biles dropped out so that her teammate could win the Gold.
@Monala: I was just going to post that (the McSweeny piece, not a CRT piece!).
My college roommate was a talented gymnast. Not at Biles’ level (I mean, who is, other than Biles?), but she was in competitive circles prior to going to college.
The mental edge is so, so critical. You second-guess yourself and you could end up paralyzed.
From a NYT article:
Piers Morgan can sit down and STFU. I don’t think anyone outside of other gymnasts realize what happened to Biles during her vault, and how miraculous it was that she landed on her feet. She stopped because she recognized that her mental state was not where it needed to be, and that can mean death or serious injury for a gymnast.
GOOD FOR HER.
Seriously, where and when did we (collectively) decide that anyone in the public eye is ours?
I fence and lunges are a big part of that. If you don’t do them right, you can absolutely hurt yourself badly. A few Olympics ago, fencers asked Nike for a shoe specifically designed for fencing because regular sports shoes aren’t really adequate. They did the math and realized a professional fencer puts more pressure on their landing foot in a lunge than MJ does when landing after a slam dunk in his prime. Foot placement, hip and leg alignment, pressure, distance and strike points – mess it up and you’ll be lucky to get away with a sprained hammy at best.
Biles is one of the best in the world – we should trust her to understand her sport and the physical dangers therein. If she wanted to quit because she wasn’t in the right state to get it done, then that’s that. So many wannabes, armchair losers or people who think walking to the fridge should be an Olympic sport have opinions on what this excellent athlete in an extremely difficult sport should have done. She put herself first and made sure her team still had a shot at the gold – a team player and wise women we should respect.
Btw, your link doesn’t go to the Biles article – it goes to a CRT one instead.
I think this is want you wanted
@Monala: link problem?
My friend Pam posted that McSweeney’s diagram this morning and some heretofore normal-seeming FB friend of hers went berserk. He attacked everyone for Biles’s Black Privilege and how if a white man had done that he’d be cancelled, and why are you stupid liberals even saying ‘she’ YOU DON’T KNOW HER “PRONOUNS” DO YOU YOU HIPOCRITS etc etc and errbody blocked him Posthaste. It was weird and out of the blue.
Piers Morgan has a long history of using his media position to harass women of color, so I don’t buy a word of his supposed previous admiration for Biles. He’s resented her since he first became aware of her and finally had the chance to openly display that resentment.
And don’t forget that Mr. “Never Quit” is the guy who lost his TV show when he walked out in the middle of a live broadcast because someone was criticizing his similar behavior toward Meghan Markle.
BTW, I partially blame NBC for this:
We could just broadcast the olympic events like a normal country, but every time NBC has to make this big deal about “storylines” that gum up the coverage to the point that it actually interferes with seeing the competitions and puts crushing pressure on the athletes that they don’t need.
It’s predatory and creepy
Retired? I had to look him up to remember who he is. But I suspect that’s your point.
@Jen: “Seriously, where and when did we (collectively) decide that anyone in the public eye is ours?”
Haven’t most of us always believed that? Our mayor, our President, our team, our Olympics–all part of the same attitude.
The concepts of BIRGing and CORFing are extremely relevant here – Basking in Reflected Glory (“We won!” says the couch potato) and Cutting Off Reflected Failure (“Those losers never had a chance!” says the guy usually covered in the team logo).
YOU cost US the gold is the main theme. BIRGing idiots who feel “America” (aka them) won the gold when it would have been Biles and her teammates actually doing the action and winning. The CORFing is kicking in as we had to “settle” for So-So Silver or Shameful Bronze instead of our rightful Beautiful Gold. Since the speaker isn’t at fault – either in actual fact or in their head – it must be “that loser” who cost them their victory and thus they cast off and degrade that which ruined the fantasy.
I don’t think race has much to do with, or sex. Bobby Orr and Sandy Koufax got the same sort of criticism for not continuing to play (the term “quitter” was liberally applied to both of them) despite injuries. And Sid Crosby took extreme heat for taking time off to recover from a concussion. As did Eric Lindros … though it occurs to me that many of my examples are hockey players, so maybe hockey fans aren’t representative of fans in general (ie they’re more blood thirsty than most, though soccer fans and their riots seem to be in the same league).
Fans, especially ones who’ve never done sports at a high level, have no idea of how hard competitive sports are both physically and mentally. I’d simply suggest putting Piers Morgan on gymanstics equipment (perhaps men’s given he’s male) and telling him to show Simone how someone with real talent and courage does it. Everything is easy if you don’t have to do it yourself.
@KM: thank you! I had just posted the CRT link to the history thread!
Thank you, I meant to mention that example of “mental toughness.”
Same. I have been learning Brazilian Juijitsu for 5-ish year (I’m getting close, I hope, to my purple belt) and I compete regularly (and by compete I mean mostly lose). And not having your head in a match (or even a practice session) can be super dangerous.
Believe it or not, BJJ is in some ways less dangerous than gymnastics in that other than on throws and compressions, there is way less torque involved. Still, in my first competition, I got disoriented in my second match and attempted an escape I had not set up the positioning for and ended up badly tearing an intercostal muscle.
I’ve also seen folks who got disoriented during a leg lock and rolled the wrong way destroy their knee.
Bottom line, elite performance athletes know their bodies and their sports and we shouldn’t second guess them–especially if you’ve never seriously competed in said sport.
@Just nutha ignint cracker: I guess I draw a distinction between those who put themselves forward as public servants, who are willingly saying “elect me to do your will,” and those who end up famous because of a specific talent.
In the first case, people are literally putting themselves forth to act in a capacity of representing people. It’s understood that part of that is listening to the masses, you are suggesting that you represent them.
In the second case, through hard work and talent, people who succeed gain notoriety/recognition.
To me, there’s a distinct difference. Is that a weird line to draw?
@Just nutha ignint cracker: “Haven’t most of us always believed that? Our mayor, our President, our team, our Olympics–all part of the same attitude.”
I think it’s even worse now with the rise of “stans” — self-named for an adoring fan in an Eminem song who kills himself and his girlfriend out of worship for the singer. These are people who go beyond fandom towards believing their lives are intimately tied in to that of the celebrity and do things like “SWAT” people who are not nice enough to their idol.
For the life of me I don’t understand how people become emotionally invested in sports.
It’s the next worst thing to religion.
Same way they get emotionally invested in movies, or books, or paintings.
We’re physical beings, and the world tends to be a competitive place (as Darwin pointed out). For many people their physical selves are highly connected to their emotions — the thrill of say scoring a winning goal in a close game is part physical, part pure emotion.
If you’re referring to being a spectator, vicarious emotion is common — again see movies, literature, looking at other people’s paintings or listening to their music.
Thought I agree it’d be much better if people were emotionally invested in their own sporting activities (as well as their own music, writing, painting etc — doing something yourself is preferable to watching other people’s work).
To be fair Michael, you cold express the same surprise at how many people become emotionally invested in film, or literature. You and your wife are probably willing to acknowledge that part of how you ended up in the position you are in right now is because the consumers who read your books connected with them in a way that made them want to read more books in the series or seek out other works that you authored.
Mirror neurons might kinda make you feel like you’re the one hitting the grand slam, you’re the one dunking from the free throw line. It’s exciting, it’s a rush.
Cheerleading is an extremely dangerous pursuit especially for the females.
The pyramid should be banned. If someone botches the “catch” in a complicated cheerleader routine she goes to the hospital or to the morgue or to the long term care facility.
@de stijl: This might be part of the reason why I’m sensitive to this topic. I’m short, and was pretty tiny in high school (4’11”, and my weight hovered between 85-90 lbs.) Guess who ended up on top? I was dropped repeatedly in practice and sported some pretty fantastic bruises. I was never seriously injured (at least not cheering, in soccer I twisted my ankle a few times), but I cringe when I think of how some of those drops could have turned out.
I enjoy sports. A lot! BUT…. I view them the same way I view a play, movie, or concert; entertainment with no bearing on my actual life other than the enjoyment that comes from the experience – nothing more.
As I’ve mentioned before, the emotional attachment to sports teams by some people (I’m looking at you English Football fans and SEC College Football fans) is wholly irrational and, in some cases, dangerous. I don’t get it. Never will. And I say that as someone who played some D-1 football.
Simone Biles is probably the GOAT when it comes to gymnastics. She is so good that she’s created moves no one has ever even attempted, much less executed. She was regularly docked points for being “too good,” “too explosive”, “too athletic”. The sports flat out said they were penalizing her because her abilities were so much better than her competition.
She has not lost a major competition since 2013. She has 4 Olympic golds and 19 World Championship Medals. And she has at least four gymnastics moves named after her. In other words, she’s a badass. If she decided she needed to step away, and then did so, good for her. It’s amusing to see all these men, who have never accomplished anything athletic in their lives, attempt to shame her. You know who is supporting her? World class athletes from all over the globe like Paul Pogba, Michael Phelps, Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Karl Anthony Towns, Adam Rippon, and more. I’d trust these athletes more than the haters on Fox and Newsmax any day of the week.
Simone Biles – scoring problems explained.
All the men I’ve seen on Twitter harshy criticizing Biles have one thing in common—they’ve never accomplished a got-damn thing.
And I’ve happily told many of them that, and nobody’s yet had the stones to try to counter me.
@Just nutha ignint cracker: To be fair, if you aren’t a football fan you would definitely have no idea who Andrew Luck was. He retired after seven seasons, and specifically cited constant injuries and the rehabilitation from them as the primary reason for his retirement. People were surprised at his retirement, but given the nature and severity of his injuries, there did not seem to be great shock.
Barry Sanders retirement in 1998 would probably be a better example. He was seemingly healthy, had been one of the best players in the league for 10 years and walked away from the game when he was still on top. There was a lot of anger directed at him, and people acted like he had betrayed some type of sacred trust.
This is not to say he got the same amount of shit as Simone Biles is getting, nor does it any way excuse it, but Sanders retired before the age of social media. He also was a very private person, and had an amazingly small amount of media exposure, and chose to do almost no endorsements.
I’ve never gotten into this idea of athletes “disappointing” me based on performance. They are not answerable to me any more than I am answerable to them.
This is part of why I really don’t like team sports in the Olympics. My ideal Olympic event is an individual event involving no subjective judging — citius, altius, fortius. Team sports are just a vehicle for jingoism. Judged sports are rife with bias and inconsistency. Judged team sports combine the worst of both — and why is gymnastics a team event anyway? There would be nothing lost in terms of either athleticism or spectacle if all gymnastics medals were individual medals.
@senyordave: Actually, you mentioning the details reminds me that I did read an article about his retirement. I was wondering why people were bent out about him retiring and after reading the article, I still was.
Because it’s popular and there can be more of it by simply adding teams.
@senyordave: But even though people knew about Andrew Lucks injuries, when word of his retirement was leaked during a Colts exhibition game he was roundly booed jogging off the field at halftime.
@Just nutha ignint cracker: It is not just public eye. The public is just awful to front line employees. I remember clearly kicking someone out after she insisted “I spent my money here, it’s my right to blow smoke in your employees faces”. It’s the same principle – I spent money so I own the place. I am emotionally invested so that athlete works for me.
And i agree with every comment above that the less a person has accomplished in life, the more they feel they own the achievements of others.
The Naomi Osaka post and thread had a lot of disappointing takes, but it seems like the idea that athletes are allowed to know their bodies and minds and set appropriate boundaries is taking hold. Seems like the noise against that notion is loudest when it concerns a female athlete of color. Women are allowed to walk away from dangerous, unsafe conditions.
Osaka deserves her space. Everyone does. And not just for talented athletes. Simone Biles.
I learned long ago from personal experience and by watching others that when somebody says out loud “I am in a bad mental space” it means they have been feeling bad about themself for a long, hard time.
One thing I would change about our ethos is the silence and hiding of self shame and admitting fragility to others. It is truly toxic.
Being weak and needing a guiding hand sometimes is part and parcel of the human condition. Baked in.
No one should be harshly judged by that. That is fucking stupid.
Admitting weakness is ironically a strength and should be encouraged. Highly.
Sitting on and never acknowledging inner pain is maladaptive and leads to bad and stupid behavior.
It seems to be loudest when its someone under the age of 35. As I mentioned, Sid Crosby took incredible heat for taking a year off because of concussions (including regular accusations that he was faking it and statements saying a real man would play even if concussed). Same for Eric Lindros with his concussions (though in part he was never popular with fans so some of that might have been fans just taking an opportunity to take pot shots at him). George St.Pierre in MMA still takes a huge amount of criticism for retiring at 32 (even though he came back for one fight at age 36), being called a coward and a quitter (and actually much worse) regularly in MMA forums — and was even insulted for retiring by the head of the UFC, the organization he fights in (that’d be like the head of the International Gymnastics Federation insulting Biles, which never happened).
Meanwhile athletes who retire after 35 usually get minimal criticism. In all cases the criticism comes not from fellow athletes, but from fans who probably last did any sport when they were in grade school. Those who can do, those who can’t criticize. And sports fans are among the worst, you get fat old guys who can’t make it once around the block calling professional athletes “out of shape” for getting tired after going hard for 60 minutes.
I think Dr. Joyner hits the nail on the head by saying athletes are dehumanized by the fans. It happens a lot, to all athletes. But the noise has to be very loud to make across my threshold, as I don’t follow sports of any kind. It takes a stream of Memeorandum headlines for me to see it. And I mostly see it about women. Thank you for citing examples in other sports.
Simone Biles is (very deservedly) a world famous athlete in the second biggest sporting event in the world (only soccer’s World Cup is bigger than the Olympics), moreso than hockey players and MMA fighters. Its completely understandable that people who don’t normally follow sports would hear about her pulling out (and the accompanying criticism) but not for the numerous lesser known athletes to which it happens regularly.
But that criticism is very common — as you say they’re dehummanized. Its funny how that happens. What started out as humans who were supposed to inspirations for what was possible (the Ancient Greek ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body) has turned into a spectacle where fans who don’t even pretend to train like athletes (ie take physical inspiration from them to improve their physical abilities) but want to vicariously take in their successes while inhaling chips and beer on the sofa.
In that sense I can understand what Mike Reynolds means when he says he doesn’t see why people become emotionally invested in sports — we invest a lot of energy and emotion into playing a sport ourselves, so its natural to become emotionally involved in what the best of our sport can do. But if someone doesn’t do any sport themselves, how can there be any emotional attachment?