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Dropping The Gold Standard: Who Simone Biles Really Works For and Why It Matters

I’m so glad I’m not watching the Olympics.

Given all the drama I’ve been seeing on social media, none of which by the way seems to have anything to do with athletic competition, my complete disdain for this quadrennial financial handjob we give to corporations I think is now more than completely justified. I’ve never cared about who wins or loses because I know it’s not about the competitors and never has been. And yes, I’ll get to that in a minute. What I’m trying to get my head around is why I’m being asked by almost everyone I know to cheer for, or not to cheer for, individuals I know little about and care about even less, because of some abstruse and frankly ephemeral sounding issue regarding the “mental health” of young superstars suffering under the strain of, well…being young superstars. 

As an aside, I’m not going to engage in the current and fashionable squabble of whether to use the terms “quit” or “quitter”. It’s just petty schoolyard jargon and I’m all grown up, you see. I have my own house and everything.

At the center of this calamity, a first world problem if there ever was one, is the withdrawal of US gymnast Simone Biles from the Olympic Games. Citing “a lot of different variables” in her statement, Ms. Biles, the self-proclaimed “head star” of the Olympics, said “I’ve just never felt like this going into a competition before. I tried to go out here and have fun…but once I came out here, I was like, ‘no, mental is not there, so I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself.’” Fair enough. As any athlete, professional or amateur will tell you, if your head isn’t in the game, regardless of the sport or how important any given competition is, defeat is all but assured.

Problem was she didn’t stop there.

I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times…I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard. hahaha!

“Hahaha”? Now we’re having another conversation.

Ms. Biles has been lauded as the GOAT, or Greatest of All Time, by contemporaries. If you didn’t know it and need to be reminded, you can tell by her custom leotards that sport the emblem of a goat. She’s all too happy to let you know that herself. Her fans call it pride and confidence. Her detractors call it arrogance and hubris. Seeing as the only observable fact is that she withdrew from the games as the shining white lights of superstardom may have been a little too bright, I’m prepared to give her detractors a point on this count. Her supporters contend Ms. Biles is a role model and an inspiration to girls who long to be Olympic greats. Perhaps so. But if the price of saying it’s OK to embrace your greatness is, let’s just say it, wilting under the pressure when the big moment arrives and excusing it as a need for self-care, then what kind of parent wants that person to be a role model for the young Olympic hopeful they drive to practice every morning?

So let’s honestly review this whole GOAT extravaganza I’m being treated to in the media. I suppose in the heady rush of patriotic Olympic fervor, Americans can be forgiven if they don’t scrutinize the record to find that Ms. Biles may in fact not be the Greatest of All Time. It turns out Ms. Biles doesn’t have the most Olympic Gold medals of any female gymnast. Not even close. That distinction belongs to Larisa Latynina of Russia with 9 Gold medals between 1956 and 1964 for a total 18 Olympic medals. Ms. Biles has 4 Gold medals for a total of 7. This puts her at No. 9 on the all-time greatest list of female gymnasts using the Olympics as a bar. Number 9 is by nobody’s measure Number 1. And before you object, that’s very fair. I simply can’t add in the 25 World Artistic Gymnastics Championship wins she has as those achievements are considered to be inferior, merely a stepping stone, to the Olympic Games, which alone has everyone’s knickers in a twist right now. Would you call someone the greatest film actor of all time of that person had the most Oscars…or the most Golden Globes?

Needless to say in light of this and given the near religious devotion her fans are heaping on her right now, perhaps someone should come up with a better acronym than GOAT.

Now to be sure it’s not that I don’t sympathize or have compassion for twentysomething athletes who have labored the whole of their short lives to compete in international sporting events. I don’t, but that’s beside the point. What I resent is being bombarded with exhortations to weep and rend my garments over the emotional state of young people whose occupation it is to compete in esoteric sporting events once every four years and are subsequently compensated, rather handsomely it seems, for their efforts through corporate endorsements.

I should like to note at this juncture that what NBC is broadcasting from Tokyo is, fundamentally, entertainment. It is no different from a minor league baseball game and as such, it doesn’t really have any meaningful effect on our lives except as a pleasant distraction from our daily grind. If Team USA wins, loses, or doesn’t compete, it won’t slow the spread of the virus, lower inflation or impede my right to cast a ballot next year, which are things I’m far more concerned with in the summer of 2021.  This whole “controversy” seems to me something else we can get upset about other than whether the Delta variant is going to kill your redneck next door neighbor by Labor Day or not.

These physically gifted people do not “represent” the United States in any official capacity. She’ll tell you that, too. The plane that flew her to Tokyo wasn’t emblazoned with the seal of the US Department of State. So no, Piers Morgan, Simone Biles did not let down her country because she doesn’t represent her country and never has. She is a private contractor in every sense of the term. She is no more representative of this country than Alexander Ovechkin represents Russia when he takes the ice for the NHL’s Washington Capitals. Neither my tax dollars nor anyone else’s go to pay these athletes for their performances. Corporations like Nike, McDonald’s, GE, Coca-Cola, Reebok, Omega, Dow Chemicals, P&G, Samsung, British Petroleum, Rolex, Verizon, Gatorade and Adidas do. Simone Biles is paid to do a job. Period. If she doesn’t and her employers don’t fire her, well then she has the best job in the world, doesn’t she? And it looks like she does. Ms. Biles is estimated to be worth $10,000,000 from corporate endorsements which is more the combined net worth of just about anyone you care to name within a 100-mile radius of my zip code. Katie Ledecky, another athlete who is apparently withering under the glare of international fame, is worth $4,000,000. Both will surely earn more than ever before next year and in the years to come. I see no reason why I should wring my hands over whether obscenely rich athletes in their early 20s can or cannot win competitions where the only consequence is that their marketability for the merchandise their corporate overlords hawk might be affected.

Incidentally, why is there a hue and cry to stand up and applaud athletes who, for whatever reason, elect not to compete? The point of the Olympics is to compete against other countries for bragging rights and to line the coffers of the corporations who sponsor the games and the competitors. Full stop. If you can’t do that, for whatever reason, isn’t is logical that you should go home? This is not Russia or China, where Olympic competitors are compelled to perform at the highest possible levels or face the wrath of the state. Team USA performs voluntarily and become rich beyond their wildest dreams of avarice in the process. Explain to me again why I should feel pity, anger, empathy, pride or any emotion for people financially compensated so well in their profession even when they don’t participate. If this is the arrangement the US Olympic Committee operates under, sign me up.

If the reason Ms. Biles gave for withdrawing from competition was the inability to cope with the horrific trauma inflicted upon her and her colleagues for years by their then team physician, then a curse on whoever would have spoken up against her. “Not only was USA Gymnastics obliterated by the nastiest of scandals, methodical and ruthless and repeated sexual abuse of its athletes by team doctor Larry Nassar, but Biles stepped forward to put her name on the list. She had been abused, and she questioned the leadership and support of the national governing body; the face of the sport rose up to push back against it. Try being bouncy and buoyant through that.” wrote the Washington Post. Well said.

But that wasn’t the reason given for her withdrawal.

It was her “mental health”. It was concern that unless her head was where it needed to be, she might do poorly, which wound up happening. Any concern that she might be injured if she wasn’t completely focused was offered as an afterthought. But if there is an ultimate sin that’s been committed here, it isn’t on the part of Ms. Biles. Not entirely anyway. Indeed, she has seemingly invited criticism during these Games for her uncompromising stand on who or what she owes her wealth and fame to. It would appear she would be great with or without the Olympics, or so Sports Illustrated contends. No, the real sin is on us. It is on the exaggerated importance we ourselves put on this overblown corporate spectacular which the country will forget about as soon as it’s over…because NFL football is coming this fall and we don’t want to miss the GOAT. Yes, I forget. There are two of them. The other one I mean.

So what does this all boil down to? It is the unsavory reality that there’s only one group of people whose opinion matters about whether Simone Biles or any other member of Team USA competes or not and that’s the executives at the corporate sponsors who make all this hullabaloo possible. Ms. Biles, and all of her teammates, are employees of the international corporate conglomerate that underwrites these Games. So far, they don’t appear to be concerned and some are even supportive of her decision. The “mental health” of Ms. Biles has been assessed to be either unimportant or even a boon to Nike, GK Elite Sportswear, Core Power, Kellogg’s, Procter & Gamble, The Hershey Company, United Airlines, The Mattress Firm, Spieth America, Beats By Dr Dre, Caboodles and The Gap. Believe me, if they thought their bottom line would be damaged, she would be either be a.) on the first flight out of Narita or b.) competing even if she was wearing a straight jacket and full leg cast to set a compound fracture. Money is what makes the Games go. So really it doesn’t what you or I think. Or the celebrities who love her. Or the right-wing pundits who hate her. It doesn’t matter what the athletes think or even the fans who watch this lavish spectacle think. It only matters to the Boardroom Suits because they’re the ones writing the checks for the Games.

All of it.