You might think that white supremacists would be the ones to inject race into discussions of African-American gymnast Simone Biles cracking under the enormous pressure of these Olympic games. For all I know, white supremacists might be doing so. However, the only piece I’ve read that puts a racial twist on this subject is by Candace Buckner, a Black sportswriter for the Washington Post.
According to Buckner, exceptional Black women “have to be superlative, as well as trailblazers.” “Simply being great isn’t good enough” because women like Biles are “carrying a gender and an entire race.” This burden “chokes,” says Buckner, by way of explaining Biles’ meltdown.
Take out the gender part, and this might have been a persuasive argument had Jackie Robinson fallen short when he broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Seventy-four years and hundreds of shattered color barriers later, Buckner’s contention seems like a reach, to put it kindly.
The only evidence Buckner offers in support of her theory is this statement by Biles the day before she bowed out of the team finals: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.” But Biles didn’t say she feels that way because of her race. Nor is there any reason to doubt that White athletes on whom extraordinary expectations are placed don’t feel the same way, at times.
I saw an interview with Biles that also took place the day before the team finals. She was asked about the difference between competing when she was younger and competing now, at age 24. Biles said she used to be fearless before competing, but these days thinks about the many things that can go wrong in each of her routines.
This sounds like a case of burnout, one that requires no resort to racial explanations. Any athlete of any race can burn out.
Buckner compares Biles’ case with Katie Ledecky’s loss in the 400-meter freestyle race. She says that, unlike with Biles, Ledecky’s second-place finish “made her story even more intriguing.”
I’m not sure what Buckner means by that. Most of the “intrigue” seems reserved for Biles’ story.
In any case, the comparison is specious. Ledecky didn’t drop out of her event[s]. She competed, turned in her second fastest time ever (and the fourth fastest by anyone), and won a silver medal.
Meanwhile, the media’s treatment of Biles couldn’t be more sympathetic. That’s fine. She deserves sympathy.
However, Mike Tirico and others at NBC are praising Briles for her “bravery” in not competing. That’s one way of spinning things. A more realistic take would be to praise the athletes who competed and neither commend nor condemn Briles for not being mentally up for the competition.
Buckner concludes her piece by urging that we “let Black women be great without carrying a deeper narrative.” I believe that most of us do let this happen. It’s mainly the race mongers who insist on a “deeper narrative.”