The Olympics as a Celebration of Personhood
Simone Biles is a global role model. She is also a cautionary tale. Her withdrawal from the Olympics because of her inability to deal with the mental pressure says something about her and something even more about us.
The anticipated narrative around the 2020 Olympics was expected to be politics. Headlines suggested that this was going to be the “angry” Olympics, with Japanese citizens protesting over the potential for the spread of the pandemic and flag protests and award stand antics in protest of traditional symbols of patriotism. Some analysts even suggested unfairly that the uneven performance of several USA teams was due to this progressive ambivalence over love of country. This narrative may still play out as the competition turns to track and field.
But at this point the Olympic narrative has now changed. The 2020 Olympics will be known as the “self-care” Olympics where issues of the mental health of athletes is the headline. First it was the performance of Japanese superstar Naomi Osaka after bowing out of the French Open over mental issues. Osaka is the face of the host country Japan. For this reason, she accepted the high profile role of lighting the Olympic torch during the opening ceremony. She was then unexpectedly upset in the second round in straight sets.
And then the Olympics was shocked by the withdrawal of Simone Biles from all Olympic competition after a lackluster start to the Team USA gymnastics competition. It was both an unfortunate and totally understandable decision. There is a hidden dimension to elite competition that has now come center stage: handling the mental pressure and global expectations. It is one thing to be an Olympic competitor, it is quite another to be an expected medal contender, and even more to be the global face of the entire competition. When Biles explained that she felt “the weight of the world on her shoulders,” we should take her words literally. While managing the mental pressure of competition is an intrinsic part of elite competition, the current reality facing a small number of elite athletes is of an entirely different scale. Our expectations on the top few athletes have become toxic. The circumstances surrounding Bile’s decision are largely one of our own doing. It says less about the athlete and more about the changing culture of sports.
The Olympics are now not about country or team, but celebrity. The networks have sought to humanize the Olympics by running lengthy background packages on individual athletes. This has morphed into celebrating and elevating athletes even before the competition takes place. The aim here by the networks is to create viewership interest. From a broadcast perspective the 2020 Olympics has been a disaster with viewership down by fifty percent. Without spectators due to the pandemic Japan itself will likely lose billions of dollars in expected revenue. This loss might even impact their national politics. The Olympics is a big money game involving national pride, global corporations, and celebrity athletes.
All of this became focused on one athlete: Simone Biles. She participates in a sport with high viewership due to its athletic artistry and physical danger. It is the MMA of Olympic sports. There are few other events where the risk to the athletes of serious injury are higher. The combination of risk and expectation finally made the Olympics untenable for Simone Biles. She is correct in noting that we took away her first love. We changed the experience of competition for her. Her mental break is largely one of our own doing.
Consider the experience of Mo’ne Davis. She was one of two girls who played in the 2014 Little League World Series and was the first girl to earn a win and to pitch a shutout in Little League World Series history. She was the first Little League baseball player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrate. She was crowned as a global athletic feminist hero even before the Little League World Series was completed. That she choked in the final game so that her team came in third place is hardly surprising. The adults around her did little to manage the pressure and expectations on this young teenage girl. So much was invested in her celebrity status that despite the loss the city of Philadelphia held a citywide ticker tape parade for the third place Tawny Tigers. The status of the celebrity athlete outweighed the team performance.
Consider the experience of Norma Jeane Mortenson, aka Marilyn Monroe. Somewhere in her career the person was lost to the persona. She was so managed for the public’s purposes that her inner struggles became invisible to the insatiable demands of the paparazzi-fueled public. And this was before the global reach of the Internet and the instant feedback of Twitter. If she were alive today, she would have been chewed up and spit out faster.
If there is one thing that we have meaningfully learned from the 2020 Olympics is that there is a person behind the persona. Our cultural failure is not simply that we don’t take mental health seriously, it is that we don’t take personhood seriously. No matter what the tabloids state or Facebook pictures reveal, we are all fragile people struggling with the idolatries of security and significance. We all want to be loved. We all want to make a difference. When our persona cracks and our person is revealed, it is not a failure but a potential triumph. No person can and should have to live up to the expectations placed on Simone Biles. Her courage in pulling out of the Olympic competition is an opportunity for us to learn something equally important about ourselves. For Norma Jeane Mortenson, it was a lesson learned too late. “All she did was follow the script we gave her, that of our own lives, but it was meaningless.” Do we have the equal courage to face our own culpability?
A Prayer for Marilyn Monroe
Lord accept this girl
called Marilyn Monroe throughout the world
though that was not her name
(but you know her real name, that of the orphan raped at nine
the shop girl who tried to kill herself when aged sixteen)
who now goes into your presence without make-up
without her Press Agent
without her photographs or signing autographs
lonely as an astronaut facing the darkness of outer space.
When a girl, she dreamed she was naked in a church
(according to Time)
standing in front of a prostrate multitude, heads to the ground,
and had to walk on tiptoe to avoid the heads.
You know our dreams better than all psychiatrists.
Church, house or cave all represent the safety of the womb
but also something more…
The heads are admirers, so much is clear
(that mass of heads in the darkness below the beam to the screen)
but the temple isn’t the studios of 20th-Century Fox.
The temple, of marble and gold, is the temple of her body
in which the Son of Man stands whip in hand
driving out the money-changers of a 20th-Century Fox
who made your house of prayer a den of thieves.
Lord, in this world
contaminated equally by radioactivity and sin,
surely you will not blame a shop girl
who (like any other shop girl) dreamed of being a star.
And her dream became a “reality” (Technicolor reality).
All she did was follow the script we gave her,
that of our own lives, but it was meaningless.
Forgive her, Lord, and likewise all of us
for this is our 20th Century
and the Mammoth Super-Production is whose making we all shared.
She was hungry for love and we offered her tranquilizers.
For the sadness of our not being saints
they recommended psychoanalysis.
Remember, Lord, her increasing terror of the camera
and hatred of make-up (yet insistence on being newly made-up for every scene)
and how the terror grew
and how her unpunctuality at the studios grew.
Like any other shop girl she dreamed
of being a star.
And her life was as unreal as a dream an analyst reads and files.
Her romances were kisses with closed eyes
which when the eyes were opened
are seen to have been played out beneath the spotlights
but the spotlights have gone out,
and the two walls of the room (it was a set) are taken down
while the Director moves away notebook in hand,
the scene being safely canned.
Or like a cruise on a yacht, a kiss in Singapore, a dance in Rio;
a reception in the mansion of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor
viewed in the sad tawdriness of a cheap apartment.
The film ended without the final kiss.
They found her dead in bed, hand on the phone
And the detectives knew not whom she was about to call,
It was as
though someone had dialed the only friendly voice
and heard a pre-recorded tape just saying ‘WRONG NUMBER’
or like someone wounded by gangsters, who
reaches out towards a disconnected phone.
it may have been that she was going to call
but did not (and perhaps it was no one at all
or Someone not named in the Los Angeles directory)
Lord, answer that phone.
—Ernesto Cardenal, 1975