A week in America | 30 July 2021

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This week, Martin discusses the fallout for Simone Biles' decision to quit the U.S. Gymnatics team.

In America the reporting on the Olympics has been interrupted by a national debate on mental health.

Star gymnast Simone Biles quit the U.S. Gymnastics team after the first event and to say the nation is polarized by her decision is an understatement.

Biles is the gymnast supreme. The diminutive Ohioan has dominated the sport for nearly a decade, is reigning Olympic champion and world champion in most disciplines.

Her success has brought her fame and fortune with Kelloggs, Hershey Chocolate, United Airlines and consumer goods giant Procter and Gamble all touting her as a spokesperson.

It has also brought her into the nation’s spotlight and at her door dumped the associated challenges of dealing with social media, commercial demands, sporting expectations as well as the what I can only imagine is the taxing reality of life as a 24-year-old African-American woman in contemporary America.

America doesn’t know how to react to her news.

Over the past few years mental health has been an emerging area of concern, as it has in the UK too from what I read, but this episode demonstrates it clearly hasn’t been understood and accepted by huge swathes of the nation.

If Biles had sprained her ankle on landing one of her trademark vaults, the nation would have had an outpouring of sympathy – “how cruel that an injury should rob this American heroine of the Olympic glory she has worked tirelessly for” the chat show’s sofa guests would have wept. Social media would have been alight with hashtags like #prayforsimone and #welovesimone and the like.

But the fact that it was her mental resilience which was damaged, her ability to compete compromised, meant Biles dilemma was not met with anything like the support or comfort she should have received.

In the UK, prize lemon Piers Morgan was quick to criticise her – rich from a man who walked off set when he was challenged about being a bully by a weatherman – and here in the U.S. people in real power were quick to put the boot in too.

In Biles adopted home state of Texas, the deputy Attorney General Aaron Reitz tweeted his view that Simone Biles was “… our selfish, childish, national embarrassment’.

Of course, The Deputy AG has since apologised for his words, but only after he realised that his political career was now over and that the citizens of Texas didn’t share his world view.

As a lawyer, you would have thought he would have kept his views to himself, especially as Biles is one of hundreds of girls currently in legal action against disgraced U.S. Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar accused of sexually abusing them.

It is well reported that the U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. Gymnastics have dodged all attempts to hold them accountable for what is the worst child sexual assault case in the nation’s history.

It is also widely accepted that without superstar Biles standing up and adding her name and voice to the claims of the other girls, the issue wouldn’t have been as thoroughly investigated.

In fact, Simone Biles told NBC that getting justice for all those girls who had suffered what she had was a key motivation in coming back to compete in these Olympics at what is, for gymnasts, the ripe old age of 24.

Biles told her interviewer; “If there weren’t a remaining survivor still in the sport, they would have just brushed it to the side”.

There has been a lot written about how shabbily the powers that be in U.S. gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee have behaved since these assault cases were first revealed on 27th July 2015 – six years to the day before Biles latest announcement in Tokyo. Coincidence?

It also makes you wonder how much of a supportive environment exists for Biles and others with Team USA officials.

But there is no doubt her fellow competitors and sports stars have a more sympathetic understanding of what she is going through.

Basketball great Michael Jordan shared his support for Biles. Jordan, more than anyone perhaps, understands having stepped away from his sport in 1993 when he was at his peak to deal with the torment of his father’s murder.

Biles – who has remained in Tokyo and has been pictured cheering on her team-mates – has been grateful for the many voices and messages which have been raised in her support.

She tweeted her thanks saying: “the outpouring of love and support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”

To me, that statement acknowledges that being Simone Biles is just as important as being 4-time Olympic Champion Simone Biles. It suggests that she is starting to come to terms with the challenges she faces and processing them her way.

Of course, this debate will rage on. Armchair analysts and Monday morning Psychologists will be out in force. There will no doubt be flecks and flavours of misogyny and closet racism in many of their comments. Much as the England football players who missed their penalty kicks found that in the eyes of way too many people the colour of their skin was somehow a contributing factor, Biles will have to deal with those who are looking to blame her decision to step back from competing in the Olympics on the fact she is just a young black woman.

Martin Liptrot is a writer and commentator on public affairs and politics based in Florida.

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