The emotional heft of the Olympic Games is undeniable. When Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui shocked everyone with victory in the 400-meter freestyle, his shouts of jubilation caught in this throat for one brief moment, almost turning to tears. I know you saw it—everyone did—and all our throats caught a bit, too.
Lee Kiefer brought tears of elation to viewers across the country when she won America’s first-ever medal in women’s foil. It wasn’t the win that did it, it was her face. It was the pure, radiant moment of accomplishment: her coach falling to his knees, the two of them clasping each other joyfully, the pride, the vindication. Of course you felt something stir in you. We all did.
The intensity of it all frightens me. In my career as a care provider, I work with many elite athletes—including Olympic gold medalists. Their events consume them; more worryingly, so do their fans.
Their grueling efforts may be the backstory for our entertainment—but for the competitors, they are real, lived experiences. For the one on the podium it doesn’t end with the fanfare. They cannot scroll past the ways they have been changed.
These people—in many cases, these children—become characters for us to relate to. They experience the Olympic Games intensely, for years, so that we can have a taste of it over a few weeks. The more mythical the character, the more thrilling the tale. These games, literally named after the mountain home of ancient deities, demand that Katy Ledecky, Michael Phelps, Hidilyn Diaz and many others become both god and sacrifice.
Few have been more mythical than Simone Biles. Her decision to withdraw from competition—to step down off the mountain—returns her to the realm of humanity.
And how that makes you feel has everything to do with you.
You’ve toiled under pressure. You’ve craved the approval of a parent. You’ve hoped and pined and prayed for some ironclad (or bronze, silver, or gold) proof that you are worthy.
You’ve held it together, choking back tears like Ahmed Hafnaoui. You’ve sacrificed your body for validation, like Kerri Strug. Now you are watching Simone Biles do something truly rare: being honest about her limitations, and compassionate toward her body.
Perhaps you read the transcripts of Bile’s decision and felt a cool relief settle in your chest; she is blazing a trail for those who are terrified at the prospect that being great means needing to always be great. Hers is an example of permission to be human.
For others—maybe you—there’s tense anger, and the roiling feel of betrayal. You watched her feats of strength, grace and grit and could imagine yourself there. Her mythic accomplishments dared you to imagine being on that mountain, striving for goals both lofty and bold. Instead, she did the one thing that you can’t imagine: being publicly, safely vulnerable. Of course you’re angry.
Whether you applaud or revile her for her decision, you are not alone. You have an opportunity now to see yourself in this tale.
There’s no wrong way to feel about Simone Biles, but there is danger in ignoring what it means about you.