Simone Biles and the nature of heroism

There is an unfortunate tendency in society to idolize sports figures.  People who have an innate talent to play with a ball, run fast, or stand on a board in the water are considered heroic.  One of the most controversial commercials of all time was Charles Barkley's Nike spot where he famously declared that he was not a role model, that parents should be role models, and just because he could dunk a basketball didn't mean he should raise their kids.  In the wake of Simone Biles quitting the Olympics, it's worth pondering the message that sports figures are not heroes by virtue of their athletic abilities. 

People are disappointed in Simone Biles now.  She's been called a quitter and a coward.  There is bitter venting across the internet because she pulled out from competition after flubbing a vault.  People are talking about Olympic gymnastics as if it were something so important that not taking home the gold is the equivalent of starting a world war or losing the cure for cancer.  The Olympics are important to the athletes and their families and friends.  There is a lot of money to be made, and there is status to be garnered, both for the athletes and for their countries.  The athletes are to be admired for the discipline that allows them to reach the top of their sports, but they're not heroes for performing well in those sports.

Simone Biles is not a hero for being the most decorated gymnast.  She's a hero for overcoming her unstable early life, with a mother who struggled with alcohol and drug abuse and who put her in foster care.  So many young people lie down under a burden like that and don't even manage to finish high school or find a steady job.  Simone rose above it, despite ADHD and school bullies and molestation from a trusted doctor, to become a world-class athlete Her perseverance in the face of so much adversity is what makes her a hero, not the admittedly spectacular moves she can perform on a beam or a vault or the parallel bars.

Of course, quitting in the middle of competition and leaving the team in the lurch is not admirable, but gymnastics is not like swimming, where the worst that can happen is that you come in last.  Gymnasts have suffered catastrophic injuries and have been crippled for life.  In 2019, college gymnast Melanie Coleman died after a fall from the parallel bars.  Approximately 100,000 gymnasts every year suffer injuries.  It's a dangerous sport, where a mental or emotional problem can cause a life-altering injury or even death.

I don't admire Simone for quitting at this time, but I do have a lot of sympathy for her.  It takes moral courage for her to admit she has a mental health problem.  It would have been better for her to admit it earlier and not go to the Olympics, taking a spot on the team from another athlete, but she didn't get where she is today by quitting without even trying.  Simone is not a hero for quitting, but she was a hero in the past for lifting herself out of her difficult beginnings with hard work.  I think she has it in her to be a hero in the future if she can show the same perseverance against difficulty that she has demonstrated in the past.  That is the sort of heroism that we can all use in our daily lives.

Pandra Selivanov is the author of The Pardon, a story of forgiveness based on the thief on the cross in the Bible.

Image: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil.

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