On Simone Biles and the Triumph of Women

Let’s face it, guys: the women have won. And though it was a long time coming, their victory was inevitable. They just had to push long enough, through a protracted labor, and wait us guys out, allowing our emotional deficits enough time to send us crashing into walls, dazed and confused and shouting ourselves hoarse all the way.

And as it turns out, their victory is ours too, though it has been a grudging one, and we have not yielded all that gently (who does, about what?). And there is still a long way to go.

But that is to get ahead of ourselves a little bit, and how we got here and what it means is worth a word or two.

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Many millennia after women began to strain against the bounds of the metaphorical straitjackets males had kept them cloaked in since our hunter-gatherer days in caves, it has become abundantly clear that all else being equal, the world would be in a hella better place if women had run most of it from the get-go.

This seems inarguable from simply looking around at the condition we find ourselves in, no?

As résumés go with respect to their now longtime experience as planetary stewards, males would need to pay dearly for the expertise required to put even a modest sheen on their record.

Drenched in conflicts and violence, autocracies and police states, insurrections and gulags and genocides. Our forests decimated, our waters befouled, our wildlife threatened, our icebergs melting and our planet ablaze. All those maladies largely the province of the male impulse to dominate and subdue, to lay his world low as lord and master of all he beholds.

As résumés go with respect to their now longtime experience as planetary stewards, males would need to pay dearly for the expertise required to put even a modest sheen on their record.

Sure, women would have made their own kind of mess of this world, the richness of their inner landscapes sometimes getting the better of them. (Men: “‘Inner landscapes?’ What you talkin’ about, Bro?”)

But would women have made anywhere near this severe of a mess, with “No Exit” signs plastered above every one of the seemingly intractable problems bedeviling a world that men have unquestionably been running aground for well on five millennia now?

Not bloody likely.

These thoughts occurred to me in recent days while considering the case of Simone Biles, the much-decorated Olympic gymnast who set off a firestorm of pointed criticism and impassioned defense by suddenly bowing out of both the team and individual competition at the Tokyo Games.

Quitter or heroine?

Undermining time-honored traditions of competitive sports, or finally honoring them fully with the insights and experience brought about by women’s steady ascension on playing fields around the world?

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When I was fresh to junior high as a seventh grader, I was walking between buildings to a new class with a couple of chums, cutting up by trying to subtly bump each other so that the bumpee would momentarily cross into the path of a girl or two who were coming the other way. (So very seventh-grade-boy of us…)

Another friend walking behind us got into the spirit of things by barreling into me from behind, without warning, as if I were a running back headed for a touchdown and his job was to send me sprawling to the sidelines, short of a score.

Mission accomplished, it turned out, the “sidelines” being some bushes next to a wrought iron hand railing by the building stairs. My mouth and right incisor tooth made such solid contact with the railing that the tooth wound up in my palm, accessorized with a small pool of blood that was still in its formative stages, along with a question trying to wade its way through my befogged brain: “What the hell just happened?”

Many hours of discomfort in a dental chair getting my stub ground down and impressions made occupied my afternoon.

I still remember a tear forming at the corner of my eye as the kindly dentist squeezed up with what seemed like all his might, for the longest time, on the wax impression attaching itself to my upper teeth, assuring me as the minutes dragged on, “Just a little bit longer now…”

I was hoping he was too preoccupied with his exertions to notice my momentary failure of stoicism.

That same night, I was due at the school gym, where I was set to lead my “B-7” (first semester fall enrollees) team against the “A-7” (second semester, winter enrollees, a half year ahead of us) in a titanic struggle for the 7th Grade Basketball Championship. The game was the highlight of my year, hugely anticipated, my whole world riding on it.

And in the wake of my encounter with the railing and hours in the dental chair, my mother didn’t want to hear of me even thinking about playing.

Much imploring and negotiating followed. I couldn’t conceive of bowing out of the game and was busily working through scenarios about how I might sneak out of the house in case the fevered discussions that I had commenced with my mom proved fruitless.

I don’t remember what I promised or what heartstrings of hers I pulled to go play in that game, and may God rest her soul for understanding my need. (She most always did.)

What I do remember is that the temporary hole where my incisor used to be didn’t seem to hinder me much if at all, I played a fine game to lead my team to victory, I had not let my teammates down by failing to show, and—

I had upheld an ancient sporting dictum of unknown origin that you always, always try your damndest to play the game, no matter how sick or hurt or suddenly toothless you are, because that’s what the game and your teammates and the nobility of your however incipient manhood require.

I knew all this already and felt it down to my bones. I was 12 years old.

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When tennis pro Naomi Osaka bowed out of the French Open two months ago citing the effects of a longstanding battle with depression, the sporting world (which has come to include most of the world, it seems, for better and for worse), reacted in much the same way it reacted to Biles’s Olympics withdrawal: with a mixture of “Bravo!” from many observers and “Oh, Brother!” from others.

Osaka and Biles have been castigated by the disparagers for going soft and mental, shirking their duty to show up on game day, to do what is necessary to prepare themselves and meet their obligations to their teams, their fans, their sponsors, their reputations, and themselves.

Others have just as stoutly risen to their defense, stating it is long past time that athletes admit their vulnerabilities as human beings and listen intently to both their bodies and minds. Exhaustion or a case of the mental wobblies can afflict anyone and just as surely undermine or make impossible their performance as does a physical injury—especially under the white hot glare of modern media and its bastard children of Facebook, Twitter, et al.

How does one make nice or make sense of such disparate views? I will admit I winced a little when I heard Biles had withdrawn, based on the code I discussed above. I was concerned she had let her team and her own history down at a critical juncture she had spent her whole life preparing for, and her refusal even to compete and lose reflected some abrogation of that sacred sporting code.

But inconvenient questions intrude: What exactly is that code based on? Does it include self-preservation and well-being?

Oh sure, a kind of heroic quest underlines part of it, the hero overcoming daunting obstacles and risking all to gain the prize. But what should she be willing to risk for that prize?

In my own case, my tooth was already gone, so risk was not really an issue in my desire to play. It was just a matter of my comfort, and I knew I would be most comfortable out on the court.

Biles, though, seeks to perform seemingly death-defying maneuvers every time she puts on those leotards, where the risk is real, the margin for error close to nil, and death (or at least maiming) may not actually be defied in the end.

And then there’s Osaka, under a cloud of depression, no trifle of an illness, self-annihilation beckoning from every dark, come-hither corner of her world.

When to push through risk and pain (whether physical or mental), and when to hold back for another day?

The negative critique of Biles and Osaka is unspoken by some and overtly proclaimed by others: that their womanly “feelings” and emotions came into play and knocked them off their sports’ biggest stages. They went “soft,” let doubt seep into what should have been their stoic sportsmen’s demeanor of dominance, confidence and unflappability.

But what if sportsmen have it at least partially wrong? Because truly, playing through doubt and pain can be both a beautiful and stupid thing. Beautiful in its intention to exceed limitations and maintain fidelity to some ideal larger than the self.

But in the way of such things, because nothing is ever that pure or easy, it can also be diminishing of the self, to the degree it is rooted in egoic needs for recognition, or inimical to longer-term physical and mental health.

And isn’t it ultimately the athlete’s prerogative to weigh these options for themselves, the full range of their emotional armamentarium fully employed rather than ignored in the service of a blind imperative of heroism and duty?

Biles and Osaka are but the latest banner carriers of a much larger feminization of society that has been bringing these more rounded perspectives into every corner of our world, despite the desperate attempts of the male ruling class to head it off.

Neither the sporting world, business, politics nor any other of our institutions are unaffected by this long-building historical wave. There’s somethin’ happening here, and we do know what it is, Mr. Jones.

Biles reportedly took that practice vault the other day and felt her world at a distance, slightly unmoored, lost for a moment in space in a maneuver that requires truly superhuman skill and self-possession to accomplish. Doubt and tenuousness had made their presence known to her in an endeavor that allows for neither.

Admitting that, letting it inform her rather than launching a mental howitzer to banish it from her mind, might just have been the better part of heroism, indicating a depth of character, self-knowledge and considered judgment unknown to one-speed, one-size, one-goal automatons whose only direction is forward.

Men’s tendency, their seeming biological imperative, is to forge on blindly, whatever the cost, attempting to vanquish their foes and tame their inner demons. The result has all too often seen them plunging into the brutality of war or its proxies in business or sports. Or with failure, the turn inward toward self-destruction at the bottom of a bottle or vial.

Laudable as willpower can be, sometimes the water really is too shallow for a headlong dive. Admitting this, no matter the exhortations of adoring throngs with no stake in or knowledge of what it requires, is life-affirming and wise and courageous.

Doubt happens, vulnerability is real, and knowing when to push for all we’re worth but also when to pull onto an off-ramp and even a rest stop amidst the hurly burly highways of our bodymind represents its own kind of triumph of the will and mastery of the self. That’s something females have always been better at than males, if history—including the history of childbirth— is any guide.

But males seem to be catching up, however haltingly, largely due to the dramatic incursions females have made in the modern workplace, in sports, and the wider culture beyond.

And as those playing fields continue to level, everybody, wherever they are on the gender spectrum, will be the better for it, winners at last.

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This alternative view speaks pretty much for itself, and will pass without further comment here…

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And on a lighter note, if they gave medals for Olympic music, this piece from 2012 could be a contenduh!

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Biles at U.S. Championships, August, 2018 by Marissa Babin, Malden, MA  https://www.flickr.com/photos/mbabin/  
 
Biles & Morgan Hurd in Qatar, January2018,  by Secretaria Especial do Esporte
Biles and Osaka by Javanna Plummer https://www.flickr.com/photos/190290115@N04/

Mare and foal by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/

4 comments to On Simone Biles and the Triumph of Women

  • Kate  says:

    Thanks for the wisdom, Andrew!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Pleasure was mine, Kate, thank you!

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    Hi Andrew, I really loved what you’ve written here, and your ability and willingness to raise up a woman’s way of knowing as a process of improvement and enrichment – for ALL of us. Thank you for this.
    On the other hand – why would you provide Charlie Kirk’s hatred and bile a platform? I listened to the first half and then could not go on, open-mindedness not being the same as masochism. Ugh! I hated to see it on your page at all. No enrichment there.
    I know where to go to find such hatred, and your blog is *not* where I want to find it.
    So!!!
    It is *your* blog though, so I’ll just ask, what were you thinking? I’m truly curious.
    Thanks, as always.
    Jeanette

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Hi, Jeanette, I must admit I’m a bit surprised at the question, but it’s an easy answer, I think: I decided to add that in simply to see for myself and clearly illustrate for readers what the argument is that would attack Biles for her decision, and Kirk’s was representative, I think, of a substantial and predictable portion of the American population (don’t know how it played in the rest of the world). Vitriolic and vituperative, to be sure, but I always prefer to know what I’m dealing with from the other side, and I can’t imagine ignoring it just because it makes me cringe. I actually subjected myself to most of Trump’s more prominent speeches these past several years, too. Yeah, I know, a glutton for punishment, but SOMEONE has to do it, by God!

      Glad you got something from the content, though. Thank you.

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