EDITORIAL: Simone Biles | When the greatest drops out

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Jul. 29—Simone Biles came to the Tokyo Olympics with nothing to prove as a gymnast. She was already widely acclaimed as the greatest the sport had ever seen.

And then, on Tuesday, she faltered on her first vault in the finals of the team competition — and promptly withdrew from the event, saying she wasn't "in the right head space" to be attempting the risky in-air maneuvers that she usually accomplishes with seeming ease.

The ease is, and has always been, a well-honed illusion. Nothing comes easily in elite women's gymnastics, or at the highest levels of any athletic competition; if it did, we would quickly lose interest.

Biles is not the first high-level female athlete to pull out of a prominent competition this year for mental health reasons. Tennis star Naomi Osaka dropped out of the Wimbledon tournament earlier this summer rather than push through the anxiety that accompany the mandatory press conferences.

Such withdrawals cut against the grain of the athletic mindset, which demands that competitors forge through physical or mental discomfort. Coaches chronically talk about the "character" their teams display in overcoming "adversity," whether that be a deficit in a game, an injury or an arrest.

And that culture has been pervasive in elite levels of gymnastics. That culture essentially forced Kerri Strug to make her final vault in the women's team competition of the 1996 Olympics on a damaged ankle; she stuck her landing and clinched the gold for the U.S. team. That culture also enabled Larry Nassar's serial sexual assaults. (Biles is the sole self-identified Nassar victim still competing.)

It was not difficult Tuesday to find that culture given voice on social media, with Biles attacked as a quitter. This is nonsense. Biles has carried a great load for women's gymnastics for more than a decade. She has overcome personal trauma and outside pressure to achieve more than any other in her sport. Quitters don't do that.

On Tuesday, with her confidence and focus cracked, she decided that for her own safety and for the good of her team (which took the silver medal without her) she had to drop out. On Wednesday she withdrew from the individual all-around competition.

Those cannot have been easy choices, even if she made them quickly. Regardless of whether she competes in the individual events next week, her sense of her own limitations should be respected.

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