On Tuesday, Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s gymnastics team competition. On an upcoming episode of The Waves, Slate’s podcast on gender and feminism, Amira Rose Davis and Rebecca Schuman discuss this year’s Olympic Games and whether they’re as good for women as the organizers have advertised. A portion of that conversation has been excerpted early, and edited for length and clarity, below. Listen to the full episode when it comes out on Thursday morning.
Amira Rose Davis: In the women’s gymnastics final, we saw Simone Biles really shockingly pull out, and there’s this conversation already happening that was about mental toughness and what you push through. And it’s like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. We are so conditioned within sports to say push yourself to a breaking point mentally and physically in the name of gold, in the name of competition, in the name of this, and I don’t know if it’s the pandemic or what, or maturity, I don’t know, but it’s harder to watch. It’s harder to participate in, even as a fan. And yet it’s the Olympics, it’s seductive, and it draws even the anti-sports person in.
And so I know that I might feel icky watching one thing and then all of a sudden find an unknown athlete in an unknown sport at 2 in the morning and be completely enraptured by it. In the words of Big Sean, I think, “Don’t save her. She don’t want to be saved.” Rebecca, is it time to let go of the Olympics?
Rebecca Schuman: Well, I had a much more confident answer to that before this morning when the women’s team gymnastics final happened. And as you said, Simone had a sort of midair crisis in the middle of her vault and she kind of balked it a little bit, and then she pulled out of the rest of the competition. And she has told the press, she has said, “My head wasn’t right, I was going to hurt myself. I made that decision for myself.” And I cannot help but think that if the greatest gymnast the world has ever known has decided that she’s not going to Kerri Strug it … and by the way, Kerri Strug didn’t need to do that vault to win, and she shouldn’t have had to do that vault, the U.S. had the scores to win. And by the double way, winning’s not really that important. And so I think that if Simone can “nope” out of the Olympics, Simone, the face of the Olympics, if she can nope out, I feel like we should all be nope-ing out too.
Davis: I think that part of that calculation, when you talk about Simone saying nope, is also, I couldn’t stop feeling the weight that she’s carrying. And I feel this very keenly, especially about Black women, who symbolically carry so much at the Olympic stages and have historically.
Naomi Osaka, of course, lit the torch—she was the last torchbearer in Japan, the darling of the Games. And we’ve seen Naomi Osaka exit the Olympic Games after playing a really not great matchup, her forehand was all over the place. And of course we saw what happened with Simone, and I don’t know about you, I cried all morning. And I cried because I can only imagine the weight that they’re carrying, in part because in my conversations with Black women athletes across multiple sports—from rugby, to volleyball, to track, to field, water polo, across the sports—there is this articulation of that burden, that symbolic burden. And it’s not just the names we know, even though that’s more visible and comes with things, but one of the things that they talk about is it’s also a burden familiar to Black women who are teachers or writers or cafeteria workers.
Schuman: All of these women athletes, and especially these incredible Black women athletes, they have this voracious fan base, but the fan base, it brings support, but oftentimes it also brings expectation and this sense of entitlement. Like we as fans are entitled to the incredible bodily labor of these women and these Black women, and the fact is they don’t owe us anything. They don’t owe anyone anything.
And that’s why I think what Simone did on Tuesday morning was such an incredible feat, because even though she’s the face of the Games and she felt like the whole Games were on her shoulders, she understood in that moment that she lost sight of where she was midair in that vault, she realized I’m the only one who can take this weight off my shoulders. There might be consequences to it because the structure isn’t in place to support me, but no one is going to take this off my shoulders. Everyone feels entitled to my body, to me possibly getting injured, to me possibly breaking my neck and dying, and I’m not going to do it. And what I would like to see is a new structure that’s just a full new paradigm where we do not feel entitled to the sacrifices of these athletes with almost nothing in exchange.
Davis: Watching Naomi and watching Simone in this pressure to be great and this pressure to reveal things and talk to the press and the pressure to do all this stuff, to see them set boundaries, to see Naomi saying, “I don’t have to go to the Slam.” To see someone say, “I don’t need to do this.” And the thing that I think about, as much as that moment, it both inspires me and it makes me all emotional, but I think about the people who don’t have the platform or that financial backing that those women have to make those decisions to opt out. And so when you talk, Rebecca, about what happens to these Olympic sports, I think that this is really the point, right? I’m thinking about the inability to imagine other possibilities, and what it requires to actually change the structure of how we do things, right?
What if we actually built a robust professional track apparatus so that we weren’t reliant on the Olympics? What if we supported gymnastics in various ways that made the Olympics more like a Slam that Naomi can pull out of it because she has other options. We create more revenue opportunities that don’t involve taking your clothes off for something or being marketable, which is usually racialized in certain ways.
Even now, with the changes we’re seeing and what sports are offered or how they will be played, that’s changing. But this is going to require big ideas and people in power to stop prioritizing money. If profit is not the end goal, does it become easier to think about ideas like Mina Kimes just offered, like the Olympic Island—what if we built an apparatus and every four years, a host nation just was in charge of like planning the party there, and we stopped displacing people? What happens if we build a robust child care structure, an Olympic Village day care, if you will?
These are the ideas that actually require us to get together. This is the togetherness that it requires. Where we can really upend everything we think we know about the Olympics to maybe envision another possibility, to fill out a sentence after that end that isn’t one that we’ve even thought of yet.