The Olympics always hold surprises, and this first week of competition in Tokyo was no exception. On Tuesday, Simone Biles, captain of the USA Olympic Women’s Gymnastics team and the most decorated American gymnast of all time, withdrew from the team competition after uncharacteristic performances on both the vault and floor.
By Wednesday, Biles had stepped away from the individual all-round competition as well, citing the need to give attention to her mental wellbeing. With an almost guaranteed chance of dominating the games, Biles’s choice models something rare in both competitive sports and broader culture: the humility and courage to say, “Enough is enough.”
Although many supported Biles’s decision, others saw her choice as a failure. Conservative media voices like Charlie Kirk, Matt Walsh, and Jenna Ellis deemed her a quitter, equating her focus on “mental health” with a softness or lack of emotional fortitude. They went so far as to accuse her of failing her team and even her country. Others recalled Kerri Strug’s gritty 1996 vault, in which Strug pushed through obvious injury for a second attempt and ultimately led her team to gold.
After all, isn’t the whole point of competitive sports to push the human body to its limits—or past what we believe its limits to be? Even the apostle Paul invokes the metaphor of subjecting the body to rigorous discipline, writing in 1 Corinthians 9 that “everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. … I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (vv. 25–27).
Although we are called to discipline our physical (and also spiritual) selves, pushing the human body to its limits doesn’t mean that limits don’t exist. We’re required to have both the wisdom and humility to respect our limitations.
But you wouldn’t know this if you were taking your cues from the broader culture of the USA Gymnastics organization (USAG). For decades, the USAG has willfully denied such limits, opting instead to treat athletes as disposable by starving and pushing young bodies to a breaking point, then tossing them aside when they’re of no more use to the team objective.
Indeed, it was within such an abusive culture that Strug achieved her now-famous second vault. It was in this same culture that USAG coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi ran their notorious “ranch”—an official training facility closed in the wake of abuse allegations. It was this same culture that handed off vulnerable, hurting gymnasts to team physician and pedophile Larry Nassar. It was this same culture that covered up Nassar’s abuse, allowing him to continue to assault hundreds of other young gymnasts, including Biles herself.
It’s taken decades, but Biles’s willingness and ability to say no to that culture represents a sea change. As former Olympian and Strug teammate Dominique Moceanu tweeted, “[Biles’s] decision demonstrates that we have a say in our own health—‘a say’ I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian.”