Simone Biles had good reason to not move ahead with the team gymnastics competition at the Tokyo Olympics, saying she wanted to “put mental health first because if you don’t then you’re not going to enjoy your sport” and that she “didn’t want to risk the team a medal for ... my screw-ups because they worked way too hard for that.” Yet, what is at once a selfless act and an important statement on the essential nature of self care was taken by conservative commentators as an opportunity to attack Biles and criticize the broad show of support she received.
Biles has often been called the greatest gymnast of all time, a position that draws constant media scrutiny. Despite this pressure placed on her to perform, and though she is the only known Olympian this year who is also a survivor of the widespread sexual abuse perpetrated by ex-USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, Biles has used her position to voice a message of hope and emphasize mental health.
Her announcement on Tuesday that she would not continue in the team gymnastics competition was a part of that commitment, as was her later decision to forgo the individual competition. But her message was met by conservative media’s obsession with finding fault with athletes of color and in particular young women of color. This trend was also on display earlier this year in the right-wing uproar over tennis phenom Naomi Osaka, whose decision not to speak with press at the French Open — also based on mental health — drew scorn from conservative pundits.
This treatment stands in contrast to the way these same outlets treat white and male athletes, who are often upheld as supposedly positive and contrasting examples in the same coverage that is critical of Black women like Biles and Osaka. This, in addition to right-wing media’s fixation with attacking Lebron James and Colin Kaepernick, starts to reveal a pattern of criticism that is not often directed at white male athletes.
In the case of Biles and Osaka, conservative media’s coverage is a two-fold failure, as their focus on belittling athletes’ concern for their own well-being fits into a predictable right-wing tendency to downplay mental health. (This approach could also be seen in their disdain for discussions of mental health at the congressional hearing on the January 6 insurrection.) Those conservative sources that broke from the pack by defending Biles did so only under the guise that it was not in fact mental distress but some supposed physical impairment that lead her to bow out.
However, the negative commentary was largely drowned out by a sea of support for Biles from those outside right-wing media, including from her sponsors and fellow athletes. Many media outlets widely recognized that Biles’ consideration and care for mental health has sparked important conversations and a cultural shift away from an outmoded approach to athletics and the very real people who participate. As for Biles’ future at the Tokyo Olympics, she will have the opportunity to compete Sunday but said she will “take it a day at a time.”
Here are some reactions that Biles’ prioritization of her mental health elicited from conservative media.
- On Fox News, guest commentator Clay Travis said that Biles wasn’t “heroic” and “shouldn’t be praised” for “quitting during the middle of the competition."
- On his radio show, Charlie Kirk called Biles “immature,” a “selfish sociopath,” and a “shame to the country,” saying, “We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles.”
- Writing for The Daily Wire, Matt Walsh said that “quitters are a dime a dozen,” “cowardice is in no short supply in our world,” and “what makes the Simone Biles story troubling is ... that our cultural powers that be want us to celebrate cowardice.”
- Walsh also spent much of Tuesday on Twitter attacking Biles, writing: “With all of these female athletes quitting, maybe we really do need men to go in and take their jobs” and “She literally said she quit on her team because she wasn't having fun. This is called being a quitter. It's completely disgraceful and selfish.”
- Amanda Prestigiacomo wrote a piece for The Daily Wire titled “No, We Shouldn’t Cheer Young Women Quitting On Their Dreams — Even For ‘Mental Health.’” Prestigiacomo said that Osaka’s “act of quitting-when-the-going-gets-tough must have influenced Biles to quit on her teammates and country in the Olympics.”
- Prestigiacomo also tweeted that Biles “quit on all her teammates and her country - but hey she clapped and had fun. Biles should have toughed it out for her peers. She didn't. She deserves ridicule. Stop. Celebrating. Fake. Victimhood.”
- Piers Morgan wrote a piece for The Daily Mail titled “Selfish Simone Biles let down her team-mates, her fans and her country.” Morgan wrote: “Sorry if it offends all the howling Twitter snowflake virtue-signallers, but I don't think it's remotely courageous, heroic or inspiring to quit.”
- On Twitter, Bro Bible’s Mark Harris wrote, “Quitting is now a form of ‘bravery’ and ‘courage.’ Quitters are now ‘role-models’ in this country. Stop normalizing quitting. Simone Biles quit. Does she have that right? Yes, but in no way should she be praised and put on this almighty pedestal for doing so.”
- The Daily Wire’s Ian Haworth tweeted: “Let's not pretend that mental pressure isn't part of the job in the same way as physical pressure.If she wants to quit, fine. But let's not cheer it.”
- Radio host Jesse Kelly tweeted, “Oh, so she quit on her team at a time when they needed her most and cost them the championship. I didn’t think these American Olympians could possibly get even MORE unappealing but alas, here we are.”
- Amber Athey wrote an article for Spectator World titled “Simone Biles is a quitter.” Athey wrote that “in taking the pressure off herself, Biles unloaded even more onto her three much-younger teammates” and that “Biles may be the most skilled gymnast ever, but a true champion is someone who perseveres even when the competition gets tough.”