I remember my first feeling’s of disappointment when Simone Biles pulled out of so many events at the 2021 Olympics. But then I quickly realized that here I was falling for the patriarchal lines that are so much a part of our reality that they become unconscious. Simone Biles taught me. Winning isn’t about slaying your foes (although someone who watches politics here in the US would think so). When Biles withdrew, there were many angry tweets and letters that she wasn’t living up to her promises. Let’s review that. She has been called the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) of her sport. She is the most decorated gymnast in history. She is only 24. What promise has she broken? To whom? And who are we (meaning the public) to even determine what her promise is?
It is a thing of beauty to watch a gymnast fly through the air, to stick a perfect landing, and do death defying acrobatics. As a society, though, we appear to be unclear about just who they are performing for. Gymnasts are, for the most part, teenagers. They are not Roman Gladiators performing as a blood sport. And yet their bodies are too often treated as such. They are asked to train and perform through physical injury. Their mental health is an afterthought if it is thought of at all.
Simone Biles has conquered more than her fair share. She was in foster care, eventually adopted by her grandparents. She has been a key figure in the Nassar sexual abuse scandal, speaking out publicly, at the trial and in Congress. How could she not need time to heal?
Brava Biles for stepping away. Sunisa Lee, fellow team-mate and gold medalist, said this about Biles; “We all knew we had to continue not without her, but for her. What Simone did changed the way we view our well-being, 100 percent. It showed us that we are more than the sport, that we are human beings who also can have days that are hard. It really humanized us.”
When Biles was named the Times Athlete of the Year (TAOTY), it was in recognition of her contributions not just to her sport but to what it means to be a complete human being. Sports is wonderful, winning can be fun, but if we are expected to lose ourselves in the process, that is a huge problem. And I see it especially as patriarchy issue where a motto has often been “winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” The fact that Time named her TAOTY, is a huge step to changing that message. Is it enough?
When Biles was interviewed by Time Magazine she said about the Nassar case, “I definitely do think it had an effect. It’s a lot to put on one person. I feel like the guilt should be on them and should not be held over us. They should be feeling this [pain], not me.”
Amen to that. That is a message I have felt as well. Why is it the abused are so often the ones who feel guilt and pain when it is the abusers who have behaved badly? That, to me, is patriarchy in action. The many-decorated Simone Biles makes this point so poignantly.
To round out this discussion, I also wanted to point out the case of Katelyn Ohashi, also wise beyond her years at the age of 24. She was a promising young gymnast who at 15 years old in 2013 beat Biles for the American Cup. This was not a happy moment for her however. She had developed an eating disorder around the age of 14. She competed while her body was in great pain, likely malnourished. She wrote: “My friends and I started getting really self-conscious. We would hear stuff from our coaches. I was told I looked like I swallowed an elephant or a pig, that my face was the size of a balloon . . .We would measure our thighs and if we couldn’t fit our hands around our mid-thighs, then we’d stop eating for the rest of the day. Whenever we’d go to a party where there was a lot of food, we’d feel so bad about eating that we would go to the bathroom and throw up without realizing that’s an eating disorder.”
Even when she was in tears from her pain, the gymnastics federation did not help her seek medical treatment. She had to advocate for herself. Tests revealed that she had been competing with a fractured spine and two torn shoulders. Larry Nassar (yes that Nassar) didn’t want her to have the recommended surgery because it would affect her competitions.
She had the surgery, dropped out of elite competition and went on to join the UCLA collegiate team. One particular thing she wrote holds a special resonance for me: “I’ve said before, ‘gymnastics is abusive,’ but now I know it’s not the sport that’s abusive—it’s the culture that was created and accepted and normalized.” Exactly!
I have come to think of it as the trickle-down theory of patriarchy. What is it about our culture that not only accepts but encourages people to destroy their bodies over an ideal that isn’t healthy, sustainable, or even possible for most? Cheers to Biles and Ohashi for showing us another way. Biles has created her Gold Over American tour. Ohashi has joined it. Biles not only richly deserves her award, she is showing us the way forward. And that is why it matters that she won this award.
You can read Ohashi’s blogposts here: Behind the Madness
And treat yourself to this wonderful, joyful video of Ohashi performing that “broke” the internet in 2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ic7RNS4Dfo
Janet Maika’i Rudolph. “IT’S ALL ABOUT THE QUEST.” I have walked the spirit path for over 25 years traveling to sacred sites around the world including Israel to do an Ulpan (Hebrew language studies while working on a Kibbutz), Eleusis and Delphi in Greece, Avebury and Glastonbury in England, Brodgar in Scotland, Machu Picchu in Peru, Teotihuacan in Mexico, and Giza in Egypt. Within these travels, I have participated in numerous shamanic rites and rituals, attended a mystery school based on the ancient Greek model, and studied with shamans around the world. I am twice initiated. The first as a shaman practitioner of a pathway known as Divine Humanity. The second ordination in 2016 was as an Alaka’i (a Hawaiian spiritual guide with Aloha International). I have written three books: When Moses Was a Shaman, When Eve Was a Goddess, (now available in Spanish, Cuando Eva era una Diosa), and One Gods.