After withdrawing from most events at the Tokyo Olympics, gymnastics champion Simone Biles won a bronze medal Tuesday for her performance on the balance beam. Biles’ decision to withdraw from competition drew both praise and criticism from Christians and has sparked ongoing conversations about identity, mental health, and the definitions of strength and courage.
“I understand that some people may be disappointed,” says Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center and editor-in-chief of Outreach Magazine, “but I can’t imagine any Christian leader criticizing someone making a mental health decision. Simone Biles is a tremendous athlete, a role model, and now an example on how to speak up for one’s own mental health. Anyone with any sense (and Christlikeness) will come to the side of those who struggle—like Jesus did and called us to.”
Simone Biles: I Didn’t Quit
Simone Biles’ bronze medal is the seventh of her career, tying Biles with Shannon Miller for earning the most Olympic medals in the history of U.S. gymnastics. Biles went into the event not expecting to medal. “The pressure was there,” she said, “but I was doing it more for myself.”
The superstar’s win followed her stunning decision to withdraw from the team final after a shaky vault performance. Biles also withdrew from the all-around and other individual events because she could not overcome a mental block and feared seriously injuring herself. Her actions generated widespread support, as well as a surprising level of criticism. You can read more about them here.
Biles later explained that she was experiencing “the twisties,” meaning she was losing track of where she was in the air while vaulting. “It’s honestly petrifying trying to do a skill but not having your mind and body in sync,” she said. “Literally can not tell up from down. It’s the craziest feeling ever. Not having an inch of control over your body. What’s even scarier is since I have no idea where I am in the air I also have NO idea how I am going to land. Or what I am going to land on. Head/hands/feet back…”
Said the gymnast. “I didn’t have a bad performance and quit. I’ve had plenty of bad performances throughout my career and finished competition. I simply got so lost my safety was at risk as well as a team medal.”
However, “quitting” is exactly what Biles’ critics have accused her of doing. Some high profile Christians have said that Biles lacked the toughness to push through her challenges. They believe she let her country down and should have let someone else take her place on the team if she were unable to handle the pressure. Jenna Ellis tweeted that Charlie Kirk (who called Biles a “selfish sociopath”) was “right about Simone Biles selfishly abandoning her @TeamUSA teammates to ‘do what’s best for me.’ This is the pathetic mantra of the day.”
Seth Dillon, CEO of Christian news satire site The Babylon Bee, accused Biles of “cowardice” and “weakness.” The Bee later mocked Biles and those praising her with the headline, “Simone Biles Awarded Non-Participation Trophy.”
Simone Biles Prompts Important Conversation
The conversation surrounding Simone Biles’ decision is more than the latest cultural controversy. It highlights the stigma that remains around treating mental health as important as physical health, and it also reveals the values of American culture and the American church. How are we defining “strength” or “courage”? Is it strength never to show or acknowledge weakness?
One Twitter user observed, “For all the talk about ‘toughness’ I’ve yet to see a good definition of what real toughness is. Breaking your ankle so people can have entertainment? Losing a medal for your team so people can have entertainment?”