On Tuesday night, NBC began its primetime Olympics broadcast with a not-so-breaking news update. “The focus here is what happened in gymnastics,” said NBC host Mike Tirico. “Simone Biles, the reigning Olympic gold medalist, who came back for these games at age 24, bowing out of the team event just after it started. As of now we don’t know any more on her status for the rest of the Olympic individual competition.”
Tirico was describing something that had happened several hours earlier—because of the time difference between the United States and Japan, many of the Olympic events are being broadcast on a tape delay—which meant that lots of viewers already knew the story. During the women’s team gymnastics finals that day, Biles had abruptly withdrawn from the event after landing a subpar vault, citing diminished trust in her own abilities and a desire to avoid potential injury.
It was a shocking moment, and not just because it is rare to see a professional athlete step away in the middle of a competition. Biles isn’t just another gymnast. She’s Simone Biles, the consensus best gymnast on the planet, and the American face of the Tokyo Games. Her withdrawal at once became the defining moment of these still-young Summer Olympics—and put NBC in the strange position of having to report on the news while studiously ignoring the role it may have played in creating the conditions for Biles’ sudden exit.
As per its cyclical mandate to give casual American sports fans one or two big-name U.S. Olympians for whom to root, NBC has effectively turned the Tokyo Games into the Simone Biles Games. In the run-up to the Olympics and during the first few days of competition, you could hardly visit any NBC-branded property without encountering some sort of coverage of Biles, her chances for matching or exceeding her memorable Rio performance, and her uncharacteristic stumbles in the Olympic trials and in the qualifying rounds. The American gymnastics squad is filled with immensely talented and likable athletes. As far as NBC is concerned, though, there’s Simone Biles, and then there’s all these other people who just happen to be on her team.
The network had good reason to make Biles the face of the Tokyo Games. Telegenic and technically impeccable, Biles is a once-in-a-lifetime gymnast, an unquestioned star in a marquee Olympic sport. Her four gold medals at the 2016 Rio Games made her famous—and effectively sealed her fate for Tokyo. In 2021, with Sha’Carri Richardson disqualified, Michael Phelps retired, and Ryan Lochte no longer around to engage in his lovably oafish antics, Biles naturally became the transcendent American Olympian by whose light NBC would navigate.
The network’s choice to emphasize Biles above all others has put more attention—and more pressure—on her than on any other American Olympian in Tokyo, and possibly more than any other American Olympian before her. To be fair, NBC tried its best to make its coverage of her exit Tuesday as sympathetic and thoughtful as possible. Tirico spoke compassionately and nonjudgmentally about Biles’ choice. Former Olympians Michael Phelps and Nastia Liukin offered honest insight into the anxieties that can accompany the quest for gold and the burden of a nation’s expectations. But there were nevertheless two important themes that NBC omitted on Tuesday: self-awareness and contrition.
As the leading promoter of the Olympics in the U.S., it is a bit rich for NBC to report on the psychological pressures faced by Biles without also reflecting on the ways in which its choice to make Tokyo the Simone Games surely intensified those pressures. It’d be sort of like if your boss announced to an auditorium filled with your co-workers that the fate of the company was riding on your work output, and then took you aside to sympathetically observe that you looked stressed, and that the key to happiness was a healthy work-life balance. While I cannot blame NBC for featuring Biles as its star attraction, the network ought to be able to candidly assess and admit the ramifications of its own wall-to-wall coverage. Simone Biles made herself a champion. NBC tried to make her into a superhero. The fact that she chose to reject the cape should prompt a reevaluation of the process by which it was sewn for her in the first place.
The job of creating quadrennial TV sports heroes isn’t an easy one. The discontinuous nature of the Olympics means that casual fans don’t have many opportunities to develop deep rooting interests in most of the sports therein. As such, most people really do rely on NBC and its affiliates to curate a roster of superstars to cheer for and complain about. This is the reason why NBC focuses so intensely and unflinchingly on five or six people each games. With only two-and-a-half weeks to work with, the network needs to go overboard drumming it into your head that these are the people to watch.
For the people being watched, though, this sudden, inescapable pressure and attention can be an incredibly alienating experience. Unlike basketball, football, and baseball players in the United States, elite Olympic athletes like Biles do not exist under a continuous microscope. Outside of their sports’ superfans, most Americans watch them intensely for a couple of weeks every four years, and then basically don’t think about them unless they appear in a Subway commercial or their sport makes the news for its abusive practices. We put all this pressure on them to perform, and then feign confusion when they cite all that pressure as the reason why they didn’t perform.
During the Tuesday night primetime broadcast of the team gymnastics final, you could literally see the pressure messing with Biles’ head. “We’ll come back for the vault of the gymnast universally recognized as the greatest ever,” said NBC gymnastics anchor Terry Gannon as the cameras showed a closeup of Biles. The gymnast looked exhausted, and sad.
When NBC returned, they showed two clips of Biles making some uncharacteristic mistakes in the run-up to the competition. “Simone doing a lot of un-Simone-like things: falling off balance beams, missing parts on the uneven bars,” said commentator Tim Daggett. Later, Liukin mentioned “the amount of pressure that she has on her shoulders, not just her teammates, but the entire nation; and not just the nation, the entire world is expecting for her to be the best just like she always is, and that’s a lot.”
“It’s the rarest air. There’s nobody else occupying it right now,” said Gannon. “And it’s gotta be a lonely place at times.”
The troika seemed willfully oblivious to its own network’s role in putting Biles on that pedestal and creating the pressure to which she would very soon succumb. When Biles botched her vault soon thereafter, the commentators seemed shocked—not just that the gymnast had made an uncharacteristic mistake, but that this media-created model of sporting perfection had revealed her to be human, and had betrayed the story that television had chosen to tell about her. “That was bizarre. Right there we just saw Simone kinda almost look like she got a little bit lost in the air. Which I’ve, frankly, never seen her do,” said Daggett. “Gymnasts have to know where they are in the air. It’s called air sense. But sometimes you can get lost. She got lost in the air.”
You can get lost in the air, and you can get lost on the air, and sometimes both things happen at once. In those cases, it’s probably wise to take some time to try and reorient yourself, which is just what Biles did. After the team event concluded—the Americans took the silver medal despite Biles’ withdrawal—the gymnast offered additional context for her decision to bow out. “It does suck when you do feel the weight of the world, and you feel like there are no outlets for the amount of training that we do. We were totally prepared, but it just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head,” Biles told the media. “Like, you want to do it for yourself, but you’re still too worried about what everybody else is going to say, on the internet and stuff sometimes.”
I admire Biles for her honesty here, even as I suspect she surely knows that there is very little she can do at this point to stop the internet, the world, and NBC from talking about her anyway. The Olympics are a television show first and foremost, and its producers strive to create drama in order to compete for ratings. Despite what you might think, the primary drama is not found in the athletic events themselves, but in the stories that NBC and the other covering networks choose to tell about the competitors. The internet and the wider world would not be obsessed with Simone Biles were it not for NBC choosing to turn her into a hero while she was still too young to rent a car in most states without a deposit. And the only thing television loves more than a hero is a hero in distress.
Later on during Tuesday’s primetime broadcast, Mike Tirico spoke with Phelps, Biles’ immediate predecessor as America’s foremost Olympian, and a man who has been public about his own struggles to shoulder the weight of the world’s expectations. “The Olympics is overwhelming. There’s a lot of emotions that go into it,” said Phelps. “I mean, I could talk to you about this for an hour.” Phelps went on to talk with Tirico about it for roughly five minutes, and while he was very sincere and articulate, I couldn’t help but find the conversation a little bit depressing. The reward for surviving a stint at the center of NBC’s Olympic crucible is to become the person who goes on TV to talk about your successors.
On Wednesday morning, Biles revealed that she would also withdraw from the upcoming individual all-around competition. She has also qualified for every individual apparatus final: in vault, floor exercise, balance beam, and uneven bars. And she has not withdrawn from those—yet. The specter of total withdrawal is the last weapon that Biles has left in her efforts to reclaim the Simone Games for herself. She recently told the media, among other things, that “there’s more to life than just gymnastics.” That’s an undeniably true and mature statement, and yet it is also the one thing that fans and television never, ever want to hear from a marquee athlete. NBC turns great athletes into Olympic heroes, and in exchange, the athletes are expected to conform to the narratives created for them: to always go for the gold, because that’s what Olympic heroes do. By rejecting the network’s laurels and proceeding on her own terms, Biles is finally writing her own story.