I’m not a fan of the Olympics. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching them. I admire the athletes and am inspired by their dedication, sacrifice and courage.
What I don’t love, however, are the fans. More specifically, how we fans put so much on these athletes (often mere boys and girls). We do the same to professional, even collegiate athletes in general. Essentially we outsource our hopes, dreams and ultimately power to them. When they win we win, somehow feeling as if a part of us has achieved gold. When they lose, however, well that’s on them. “They don’t represent me!” This is especially true when those athletes stumble, lose or outright fail, on and off the court.
For instance, remember back when the darling of skiing, Bode Miller, failed to live up to the marketing hype, having the audacity to fail and even bring home a single medal? The way he was treated in the press was simply atrocious. This world class athlete was called a loser and a bum.
What about when sprinter Lolo Jones stumbled or when skater Sasha Cohen fell? We turned on them faster than Michael Phelps’ swam the 100m freestyle. Speaking of Michael, the most decorated U.S. Olympian in history went from saint to sinner in our book the moment he was arrested for driving under the influence. “What was he thinking? What a loser!” was our collective response. No compassion. Little forgiveness. No understanding of the pressure he and other Olympic athletes were under when they were performing. Even less compassion and understanding when the Olympics were over – the spotlight was gone and the fans were no longer cheering, now only jeering, waiting to call them a loser or a bum when they fall from grace. And as mere mortals, they always fall from grace.
And that brings us to Simon Biles.
“How dare she ‘quit’ on us?”
“She owes us.”
“She failed the U.S.”
“Who does she think she is?”
“Mental health issues? Really? Suck it up. Tough it out. That’s all this is about???”
Just look on your Twitter or Facebook feed to read a countless array of shameful statements about Simone’s decision to step aside due to mental health issues.
However, before you judge her, let me ask you one question. Do you know what the following list of people have in common?
They are all former Olympians who died by suicide (and this is only a partial list of recent U.S. Olympic atheletes. Tragically, there are so many more).
Olympic athletes are not superhuman. They are mortal. They wrestle with demons. They struggle with inner darkness. They are, as Ms. Biles reminded us, very human, subject to anxiety, depression and suicide, just like the rest of us. Like…
1 in 5 of us who struggle with anxiety.
1 in 4 of us who battle depression.
Nearly 50,000 of us Americans who die by suicide every year (the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.) That’s one of us succumbing to the demons and darkness every 11 minutes!
This is why Simone Biles’ decision to step aside and speak out is so brave, so important and should not be judged, questioned or criticized. On the contrary, she should be celebrated; her commitment to self-care, to seeking care and the bravery she demonstrated in telling us the truth about why she would not compete is courageous beyond belief. She opened the door for her fellow Olympic athletes to get help if they are suffering. If our heroes can struggle, then we can too! She lessened the stigma for all of us to be honest about mental health issues, destigmatizing them and opening the door to this crucial conversation. Unlike playing games and winning prizes, this game is a matter of life and death!
So, let me be a fan who doesn’t criticize or question Ms. Biles. No, you may not have won a gold medal this year at the Olympics. However, in so many years what you offered us is worth so much more. You have demonstrated by your example that the courage to speak up and speak out about mental health issues is the stuff of true Olympians. You are not only a world class athlete, but a world class human being. Thank you for bringing home to all of us, nothing less than true gold. You deserve nothing but respect, praise and admiration from nothing less than true fans.