Simone Biles says she’s under pressure to over-achieve as a Black athlete

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Simone Biles performs during the Gold Over America Tour at Staples Center on 25 September in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)
Simone Biles performs during the Gold Over America Tour at Staples Center on 25 September in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

Simone Biles has described how she feels under extreme pressure to over-achieve because “as a Black woman, we just have to be greater”.

“Even when we break records and stuff, they almost dim it down as if it’s just normal,” the gymnastics star said in an interview with The Cut , noting that Black women athletes were under a lot of pressure and had to break many barriers.

Referring to her journey so far and her Olympic campaign earlier this year, Biles said: “If you looked at everything I’ve gone through for the past seven years, I should have never made another Olympic team.”

“I should have quit way before Tokyo, when Larry Nassar was in the media for two years,” the 24-year-old told the magazine. “It was too much.”

She added: “But I was not going to let him take something I’ve worked for since I was 6 years old. I wasn’t going to let him take that joy away from me. So I pushed past that for as long as my mind and my body would let me.”

Biles pulled out a number of events during the Tokyo Olympics in July, citing the “twisties”, a phenomenon experienced by some gymnasts where the brain mentally blocks them from performing dangerous stunts.

Though many, including USA Gymnastics, endorsed her decision, she also faced a wave of criticism.

Biles had pulled out due to mental health concerns saying: “I have to focus on my mental health. I just think mental health is more prevalent in sports right now. We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do.”

Soon after withdrawing from an Olympic event, Biles had said: “We are not just athletes, we are people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back.”

She has spoken out on a number of occasions about her mental health struggles, such as the emotional toll caused by being one of the girls Larry Nassar, the former Olympic Team doctor, sexually abused.

In 2017, the former US Gymnastics doctor was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison after pleading guilty to sexually abusing 10 of the more than 265 women and girls who had come forward.

Biles has gone on record to say her perseverance to compete publicly comes from wanting to create a safer environment for her teammates.

Biles had also said at the time of the Olympics that she didn’t trust herself “as much anymore”.

She had added: “Maybe it’s getting older. There were a couple of days when everybody tweets you and you feel the weight of the world.”

Biles is not the first Black female athlete to speak out about the pressure they face compared to their white counterparts. Marirose Roach, an attorney and former scholarship track and soccer athlete at Temple University — who now plays semi-professional football in the Women’s Football Alliance — said in June 2018 that Black women have to overcompensate “because you’re in a hostile environment... even on your own side at times.” She added that there was “constant pressure not to act out”.

Alyson Felix earlier this year told Elle magazine: “I have to pay attention to what I need and take space when I need it, and understand that I’m up against a lot.”

In July this year, sociologist Harry Edwards — who first wrote about Black athletes more than 50 years ago in his book The Revolt Of The Black Athlete and is a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley — said during a podcast titled All Things Considered that there was a “lot of weight on the shoulders of people who, in many instances, are just barely young adults while at the same time focusing on their principal goal, which is an athletic achievement. That’s a lot of pressure.”

He added: “Because of that triple burden of gender, race and being athletes, women have never been accepted as total and complete athletes, even the greatest of them.”

Biles, in The Cut interview, said: “Sometimes it can just feel overwhelming.”

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