Biles' burden runs deeper than gymnastics

TOKYO — It's Wednesday in Tokyo. The sun rose here. And just as surely as it did, social media was chock full of mostly anonymous people (mostly men) decrying the "weakness" of Simone Biles for having the audacity to put her own mental and physical health over their antiquated ideas of toughness.

Because of course a woman who has competed through broken bones, and kidney stones, and sexual abuse at the hands of one of the very people meant to help keep her body working its best, and mental abuse from the coaches who had her competitive fate in their hands, only to still become the most decorated and incredible athlete in the history of her sport, is nothing but a little weakling to people who only care about her now because she gives them something new to rage about.

That she's a woman and Black only adds kindle to their faux fury.

None of us know what it's like to be Simone Biles. Or Naomi Osaka. You can ask someone who might have some semblance of an idea, as NBC did with Michael Phelps during its swimming broadcast, about the pressure to perform your absolute best on the exact day and at the exact time it's scheduled you must, with your country watching and a global sports profit machine poised to rake in money you likely won't get a share of from advertisers that using your image, your name, your greatness for their gain.

But Phelps is a straight white man. For all of his greatness, he always had that safety net. 

Being a Black woman, even one who isn't a trailblazer (though many of us are because, well, the history of the United States), comes with an untold number of things — expectations, pressures, slights, assumptions, aggressions micro and macro — that Phelps has never had and never will have to experience. 

For myriad reasons, Simone Biles is far tougher than anyone who considers her weak. (Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)
For myriad reasons, Simone Biles is far tougher than anyone who considers her weak. (Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)

And being a Black woman of any renown, particularly as an athlete, means you have all of those things, and the hopes and dreams of an entire community of Black people, some of whom will aspire to follow in your footsteps because if you do it then maybe they can too, and some of whom believe that your success will help all Black people finally be seen as full and equal partners in American society.

And don't you dare slip up, because then the white people who were rooting for you as long as you were entertaining and had greatness in your reach will remind you of exactly what they think of you.

Biles chose her own well being, and by extension, the good of the U.S. gymnastics team here in Tokyo, by withdrawing on Tuesday night. Teams get three athletes per event and all three scores are counted, so had Biles "stuck it out" as so many think she should have, the same people now bleating about her selfishness would have ... been bleating about her selfishness for ostensibly making it all about her and not doing what was best for the team.

At worst — since some seemingly forget this — a lack of mental focus could have led to catastrophic injury.

When Osaka chose her own well being a couple months ago, she was swiftly condemned by some in a sports media corps who believe they're entitled to speak with her, and that she should be required to answer every probing, inane question they have, regardless of how it negatively affects her. Even when she returned, cautiously, to the media mixed zone here this week, there was grumbling that she hadn't done enough. 

And don't you dare shine too bright, because then you'll provide a new reason to be criticized.

Biles cheekily having a goat decoration on her leotard is now another metaphorical mace with which to whack her, as if she wasn't the greatest gymnast ever long before she asked someone to put some extra rhinestones on her competition uniform. 

Osaka accepted the honor of lighting the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony here, and it led to questions of whether she's "Japanese enough." Never mind she's only the daughter of a Japanese woman, born in Japan, and has only ever played for the country's flag in international competition.

If you're wondering what it is that makes her not "Japanese enough", we're going to take a stab and say it's because she also has a Haitian parent and identifies as a Black woman. If you don't believe us, remember that this is the same Australian media that once depicted Serena Williams as a giant, raging Black ogre and Osaka as a blonde white woman and was all too proud to do so.

And anyone wonders why she might not want to talk?

When Naomi Osaka chose her own well-being over supposed obligation to her sport, she was criticized for it. Sound familiar? (Photo by Dai Tianfang/Xinhua via Getty Images)
When Naomi Osaka chose her own well-being over supposed obligation to her sport, she was criticized for it. Sound familiar? (Photo by Dai Tianfang/Xinhua via Getty Images)

As if all of that weren't enough, let's not forget Biles isn't just tasked with bringing glory to gymnastics, she is essentially keeping USA Gymnastics as an organization from completely, and rightfully, sinking under the weight of its own disgusting malpractice in allowing Dr. Larry Nassar to treat its athletes and the Karolyis to "coach" them for years, even as complaint after complaint was made.

Biles and Osaka have used their voices to speak in protection of not just themselves, but for millions who may never get the chance. That too is in play here. For far too many people, their only duty is to entertain and win, and be grateful that their brown-skinned selves have been allowed to do either and earn money while doing so.

This isn't to say that Biles and Osaka haven't gotten waves of public support, from people we'd expect, and others that you wouldn't necessarily expect. It's been heartening to see.

It still doesn't lighten the loads that they've carried, the unending pressure to be Black and a woman and successful at a level few if any have ever reached.

On Tuesday night, a reporter mentioned to Biles that the day before her first round of competition at these Olympics, she wrote on Instagram that she felt as though she had the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Biles quipped, "That shit's heavy."

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